For this "On the Job: Peer Advocate" entry, I interviewed someone who works at Baltic Street AEH, Inc., a 95-percent peer run non-profit agency that provides advocacy, employment and housing for people with mental illnesses. Her experiences could inspire you to consider this field.
A peer advocate does exactly that: advocate for clients and support them in their goals, such as housing and employment. A person comes in with a variety of needs, much of it is housing-they have to fill out a HRA 20-10 E and they file it with the Human Resources Administration where it's approved or disapproved. After it's approved, if the person isn't homeless, the peer advocate sends the application to an agency called CUCS and they give Baltic Street three referrals to housing agencies based on the specifications the client identifies.
Peer advocates also help with public assistance, social security, SSI, Access-A-Ride, they go to Medicaid and Access-A-Ride fair hearings, help apply for social security disability. They don't go to appeals for SSI and SSD; that is turned over to an attorney. Sometimes, advocates deal with adult protective services when a client is declared incompetent and needs protective services. The woman I spoke with at Baltic Street also assists a senior advocate with the self-help group and at the outpatient clinic in Brooklyn.
A typical day involves returning phone calls from clients or HRA or CUCS or housing agencies, speaking with psychiatrists to get additional info to support housing applications, and entering housing packages into the computer. She works twenty hours a week, three days a week, that is, part-time.
If you're interested in becoming a peer advocate, you'll need to be patient and compassionate. Dealing with housing, you need to have long-term satisfaction, because it takes a long time to get housing. So you have to be satisfied you've been productive by entering the housing package and contacting the agencies, it's a waiting game. Sometimes the clients take it out on you, only it's not your fault it takes a long time so don't get angry at the client in turn, be compassionate with their frustration in the process.
Also, knowledge of the benefits application process is beneficial; having gone through it, you'll understand how it is for them. It's suggested that you be stable in your recovery because a certain amount of stability is required. That length of time depends on the person, though. It's possible that someone could become symptomatic down the road. Having a job is stressful, dealing with co-workers and the divisions and clients requires you develop coping skills. The woman I spoke to deals with stress by working part-time, and also having a friendship network.
Three days of work to keep active and two days off to unwind suits well the person I interviewed. She suggests you log on to www.idealist.org, to find peer advocate work or other work in non-profit agencies. In New York City, you can contact the human resources director for Baltic Street. Also, the City and State hospitals often employ peer advocates. Check the hospitals in your area, too. FEGS, the Jewish Board and other agencies have their own web sites with job positions, so look there.
One of the drawbacks to this job is that it often takes so long to find housing, and there's a shortage, and if you can't help a client, it takes a toll. Also, sometimes you have to share a desk, like "musical chairs" with desks, and you'll need the computer to do your work.
The most satisfying aspect is getting someone benefits like a one-shot deal to pay their rent, or paying their electric bill, achieving those goals for people is satisfying. As support for the client, you go to court, and you feel good when you achieve the legal end.
On the spectrum of jobs in the mental health field, you could also be a social worker or rehab counselor, and that requires a Masters degree in either social work or rehabilitation counseling. Peer advocate positions don't require a college degree, though that could be helpful if you want to advance. The pay varies depending on where you live.
Like with any kind of job, working as a peer advocate has its ups and downs, and it's not any easier than other jobs out there. It can be emotionally draining at the same time it's immensely rewarding.
Consider peer advocacy if you're willing to risk disclosure and believe that people can recover. With your help, they will.
Published On: December 09, 2008