The historic Victorian home commands the corner lot where it sits, yet inside, the work that’s happening is quiet and personal. The home is Safe Haven, MHA’s transitional shelter in Westfield where adults who are chronically homeless and have a mental health diagnosis may reside for up to two years while they get help overcoming barriers to housing.
One man who graduated from Safe Haven—and for a year has been living independently in Westfield—is Francisco Rivera. A life-long Red Sox fan, Francisco spent nearly a year as a resident of Safe Haven. In that time, he worked closely with program staff to maintain his sobriety, address his mental health challenges, and become stable in his day-to-day life.
“My sobriety is the key to my future success in my life,” said Francisco. “Recently, I got my ServSafe Certified for food handling and I submitted my application to the culinary arts program at Kate’s Kitchen. (FoodWorks@Kate’s Kitchen is a culinary training program that offers unemployed and under-employed individuals job training in the culinary field.) My plan is to get my Culinary Arts Certificate and get back to work. I’ve been on Social Security Disability Insurance for too long and now that I’m sober and stable it’s time for me to work and be self-sufficient again.”
This is a fundamental change from where Francisco was less than two years ago: living in a tent in a remote wooded area of Holyoke. “I’d been dealing with mental health issues since I was 19,” Francisco explained. “I was diagnosed with manic depression. Then at 21, alcohol use came into play. I was in and out of therapy but I wasn’t consistent seeing my therapist or taking my medication, and the alcohol made everything worse. I had a beautiful wife in my early 20s and a marriage that lasted about 10 years, but I lost a good woman to my alcohol abuse. I wasn’t violent, I just was not being a responsible man who maintained a job. Alcohol abuse isn’t a good thing for a marriage.”
Francisco had been living in an apartment in West Springfield, but it was not where he wanted to be. “It wasn’t a safe place with the things going on in the building, especially for me struggling with my mental health and drinking,” Francisco said. “I stayed for the winter, but when May came around, I left and put up a tent in some woods in Holyoke. I abandoned my apartment and was truly homeless, but I felt safer in the woods. In the six months I was there, no one passed that area. Eventually November arrived and it was too cold to be in a tent.”
For the first time in months, Francisco decided to answer the regular call he’d get from a worker in the Department of Mental Health. “I explained why I was in the woods and he said he understood,” Francisco recalled. “He also said he’d help me get into respite in Westfield so I didn’t have to live the woods anymore. After 10 days in respite, he was able to get me a place in Safe Haven, and that changed my life.”
Samantha Gulsvig, Program Supervisor for Safe Haven, described why Francisco feels that way. “We are a program that not only treats the symptoms, we treat the whole person. Whether that means nutrition, physical health, mental health, or other personal issues, our goal is to help folks succeed. When people are ready to leave, it’s like graduation. They come back as alumni, visiting for picnics and holidays. Francisco comes by every Friday to visit. It’s important that we remain connected because often Safe Haven staff truly are their family, the only ones they know well and feel friendly and comfortable with. We build good relationships organically, which is a really good thing.”
The life transformations taking place at Safe Haven are real, measurable and lasting. In terms of numbers, 94% of the people residing in that house have come off the street, without secure housing. At Safe Haven they are provided supports and services that help them get sober and stable so when they graduate, they are primed for successful lives in the community. More than 4 of 5 Safe Haven graduates go on to live successfully for the long term.
Francisco says his goals are simple: maintaining his sobriety and mental health, furthering his education in culinary arts, and obtaining steady gainful employment. “I want people to know that this program Safe Haven helps people,” he said confidently. “It’s worthwhile for the community to invest in this program because there are a lot of success stories with people after graduation. So many of us got prepared and graduated to move to our own stable apartments and we’re moving forward in our lives and succeeding. I want people to know that there’s hope, there’s rehabilitation and there’s opportunity. You have to want that, but the help is there. Look at me because I’m the proof.”
To learn more about Safe Haven or any of MHA’s programs and services, please call 844-MHA-WELL.