Maintaining your mental health takes time and commitment. This becomes even more difficult for people experiencing homelessness. That’s why at Sheppard Pratt, we seek not only to provide compassionate care, but also to offer the holistic, wraparound support that makes getting care—and following through with it—possible.
According to Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, our needs function like a pyramid. Without food, shelter, and safety, it isn’t realistic to believe that someone could prioritize their mental health needs, seek therapy, or get clean from substances. As Sarah Norman, Sheppard Pratt’s Chief of Community Development, says, “Sometimes the best mental health intervention is a home, a job, and a connection to your community.”
That’s why our continuum of care includes more than medication and hospitalization. We connect veterans to housing and employment; teen moms to diapers, childcare, and healthy meals; and autistic or developmentally disabled students to schools where they can thrive.
Below are stories from a few Sheppard Pratt patients and clients who demonstrate this whole-person approach to healthcare and the transformative progress people can make because of it.
Dietrich: Not Just a Job—a Purpose
Dietrich Vinson was always a troublemaker. He started using drugs and alcohol at thirteen. “I did whatever came to my mind,” he says, “usually nothing good.” He left school in the 10th grade.
In 1980, Dietrich was violently mugged. He lost an eye in the assault and slipped into a long period of depression. His relationship with his kids deteriorated. He self-medicated with years of substance use. Until one day, he says, “I looked in the mirror and said to myself, I can’t keep doing this.” He sought professional help.
While enrolled in an adult psychiatric program in Baltimore in 2009, he was referred to Alliance, a social enterprise owned and operated by Sheppard Pratt. Alliance provides employment opportunities to individuals with mental illness and other kinds of disabilities.
Alliance offered Dietrich an entry level job in custodial services with BWI Airport. After twenty years of joblessness, he began working for Alliance.
Once he was given the chance, Dietrich excelled. “I came in and applied myself just like I applied myself to recovery,” he remembers. He earned the respect of his supervisor and co-workers. His confidence grew. He became the “go-to guy” with an ever-ready smile and pleasant disposition.
Eventually, Dietrich, now 64, was promoted to a supervisor position. “Never in my life had anyone had that much faith in me or elevated me like that,” he says. “I made it a point not to disappoint.” He continues to excel on the job, overseeing four employees, and attending specialized leadership training programs.
“Alliance took a chance with me,” Dietrich says. “A lot of people had given up on me. I had given up on myself. Alliance believed in me.”
He has been clean for more than a decade now and is committed to staying “on the straight and narrow.” He’s rebuilt the relationships in his life. He’s married and the head of household for his wife and youngest son, who has autism spectrum disorder. “Now I’m capable of taking care of them,” he says. He’s apologized to his older children and proven that his new direction is a permanent one. He is happily building relationships with his 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
“Without Alliance, I wouldn’t have stayed sober. Alliance gave me something to strive for. It gave me a purpose in life. This is the most peace and stability I’ve had since I was a child. If I live to be 100, I hope to still be working for Alliance. The sky’s the limit.”
Dietrich’s deepest gratitude is that his parents were alive to see him turn his life around. “All I ever wanted was for them to be proud of me,” he says through tears. “Thanks to me working here, I was able to do that. Before they passed, they told me how proud they were of me. That means the world to me.”
He sees his supervisory role as an opportunity to teach the next generation both the job skills and the life lessons that he’s learned. “My favorite thing is helping people. That’s the main thing I’m here for. I was helped. Now I can pass that on.”
Elizabeth: The Future is Bright
Elizabeth has never had it easy. She was born to parents too consumed with addiction to provide for her. “I lived in a crack house. People strung out in the hallways, walls falling down, floors rotting out, that’s where I grew up.” She had three younger brothers and would be left to find them food when their parents locked them out of the house, “for days, until we could pick the lock and get back in.”
She struggled in school and was diagnosed with learning disabilities. Throughout her childhood, Elizabeth’s parents progressed from alcohol and pot to crack cocaine and methamphetamine. Her father was physically abusive.
Eventually, Elizabeth went away to college, where she coped with undiagnosed mental illness through self-harm and binging and purging. She managed to graduate despite her struggles and was pursuing a master’s degree when she was raped. She left school, and she describes the next living situation she was in as one rife with intimate partner abuse. “It never really got better…until now.”
In 2010, at 30 years old, Elizabeth finally decided to seek help. That effort led to almost a decade in and out of inpatient units at various hospitals. She came to understand her struggles as PTSD and bipolar disorder. But something was missing. Her treatments were ineffective.
Until she arrived at Sheppard Pratt’s Trauma Disorders Program. “It was a very positive experience for me.” She was diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder. “They believed me, and they knew how to treat me.” Elizabeth was stabilized and released several months later.
But when the stable living situation she’d been discharged into became unstable, Sheppard Pratt staff intervened again. “They didn’t let me go to the street,” Elizabeth says. Staff found her a crisis bed and readmitted her to the trauma unit.
That was the beginning of a new trajectory for Elizabeth. Recognizing her level of need, Elizabeth was referred to the Adult Residential Treatment Center (Adult RTC) where she resides today. Here, she is learning skills for independent living with the support of 24/7 staff who ensure her physical and mental health needs are met.
“It has given me a safe place to stay, a stable residence, a place where I am not afraid,” she says. Adult RTC provides a daily schedule, including groups ranging from psychoeducation, occupational therapy, and art therapy to cooking, cleaning, Japanese culture night, and language learning.
“The biggest thing is the staff,” Elizabeth says. She struggles with a number of physical disabilities including Multiple Sclerosis and chronic pain. She sometimes uses mobility aids like a wheelchair. Adult RTC staff helped make her apartment handicap accessible when she moved in—providing an apartment with ramp access, installing grab bars in her bathroom, and lowering her bed to ease her transition from wheelchair to mattress. They connected her with outpatient therapy, where she could continue to process the trauma she has experienced.
Adult RTC provides comprehensive case management. Staff attend doctor appointments with residents, to ensure they understand their own care. They help residents apply for disability or medical assistance. And they work one on one with residents. “We are figuring out ways for me to handle my self-harm tendencies,” Elizabeth says.
“The staff loves being here. They love what they do. They don’t hide in the office with the door closed. They are interacting with us and encouraging us. Everyone here will bend over backwards to help you.” She explains that staff have given her the confidence to communicate her needs to others.
Staff help residents work through daily tasks like learning to manage money, sorting mail, and exercising. A nutritionist and personal trainer come to the residence a couple times a week to teach healthy living skills. Residents can also go to the local YMCA, which Elizabeth does. “I am getting stronger; I am really proud of myself.”
The environment at Adult RTC has allowed Elizabeth space to heal and grow while managing her challenges in healthy ways. “Here, I don’t have to be ashamed about what I deal with. This place has given me the confidence to say I am neurologically diverse. No one asks for mental illness. But I am learning that it’s not my fault.” She says that the stability of Adult RTC gives her the opportunity to not just learn coping skills, but to practice them until she is ready to use them in everyday life.
In the 15 months since she came to Sheppard Pratt, Elizabeth says, she has only self-harmed twice. “I used to have to do it constantly just to get through the day. So that’s huge.” She hasn’t purged either. “I used to think I deserved it. That I had done something,” she says of her mental illnesses. “Now I am learning to respect myself.”
“Safety, stability, people who help me and who understand – Adult RTC doesn’t just meet my needs, it does that wrapped up with a bow on it. It has made a world of difference in my life.”
Elizabeth has rarely been able to see a future for herself, but now, she says, “I am planning for one. I want one.”
Lesly: Finding Success as a Family
Lesly came to the United States from El Salvador in 2013. She was 14 years old and pregnant. Lesly’s parents had come to the U.S. when she was 3 years old, and she didn’t hear from them for 11 years. She was raised by her grandparents. Reuniting with her parents wasn’t easy. “We didn’t know each other,” she says. And her mom, who gave birth to her at age 15, wasn’t happy to see Lesly following in her footsteps.
Lesly struggled with depression and felt like she had no support system. Her pregnancy, a new school, a new country, a new language … “It was all too much,” she says. “I was having a lot of emotional problems. I was thinking of dropping out of school.” Lesly’s mom found a Sheppard Pratt psychologist who made weekly in-home visits to provide therapy. Seeing how strained Lesly was for resources, her psychologist connected her to Keys to Success—a Gaithersburg-based Early Head Start program that helps teen moms stay in high school. She helped Lesly fill out an application. Lesly and her baby, Juan Anthony, were accepted into the program.
“I was so happy when I got to Sheppard Pratt,” Lesly says. Keys to Success provided transportation both to daycare and to Lesly’s high school. They provided diapers and food when Lesly was in need. They helped her fill out applications for assistance programs. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, the program stayed open late to provide healthy snacks and extra tutoring services. “They helped us with all the hardest subjects. I didn’t know the language at all. I needed so much help,” Lesly remembers.
Lesly is 22 and married now. She credits her family’s stability to Sheppard Pratt’s interventions. “It is one of the best things that could have happened in my life, and for my kids also. They have been like a family for us.”
Lesly came to Sheppard Pratt when she needed therapy. What she found was so much more. “Without the program, I definitely wouldn’t have graduated. If I didn’t have Sheppard Pratt, I don’t think I could have made it.”
Last year, Lesly was granted permanent residence in the U.S. She hopes to go to college and get her nursing license. “My thoughts were so different before the program. I didn’t know what would happen with me and my kid. They supported us to have a better future for our family.”
Agnes: A Battlefield at Home
Agnes Ross is a 67-year-old Marine. She left the military in 1977, but that identity still informs her life, for better or worse. Agnes was an administrative clerk in Camp Lejeune shortly after the Vietnam war. She was the first face a lot of Marines saw when they arrived stateside. “There was a lot of pain at Camp Lejeune,” she remembers; the base was full of active service members suffering from their time at war. She was a rising star in the battalion headquarters when her career was cut short by a sexual assault.
But not until a decade ago did she realize the “emotional rollercoaster” she lived on was actually post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Agnes found help through Sheppard Pratt’s Veteran Services Center, which connected her with a Sheppard Pratt outpatient mental health care center. where she came to understand these diagnoses. “When you served your country and got traumatized… when you thought you were crazy. It’s important to know you weren’t crazy at all.” This knowledge, and her service dog, Ohwee, helped her find joy. She also stopped self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
But Ohwee passed away. And Agnes’ landlord, who kept her and her husband, Rico, on a month-to-month lease, evicted them. “I’ve been homeless before. When you’re homeless, and you’re 66, and have as many health problems as I do… I just went into a deep depression.”
“The PTSD was telling me, ‘You ain’t gonna make it.’ But Sheppard Pratt stepped up to the plate. I believe in God, and that Jesus sends me angels. Sheppard Pratt was an angel in disguise.”
Staff from the Veteran Services Center moved Agnes into a hotel and checked on her physical and mental needs while they made a plan. “I would’ve died in the streets,” she says.
Veteran Services Center staff then moved Agnes’ family from the hotel to housing in Baltimore. They set her up with a subsidy program to assist with household costs. They connected her to therapy. They ensured she had access to adequate medical care and that all her doctor appointments were made. They put food on her table.
A case manager checks up on Agnes regularly, making sure her medical and mental health needs are met. “They connected me with everyone I needed, and then they just kept calling to check in on me.”
“They made me feel like I was a person, that I was important. They didn’t let me fall through the cracks. And if things do get messed up… now I got somebody to turn to.”
Agnes has a house now, but what really makes it a home is her new service dog, Ohweesir. “I love the fact that I have enough room here for my dog to enjoy himself,” she says, “to run up and down the wood floors.”
With her case manager, her family, and Ohweesir around her, Agnes can face her challenges with confidence. “It gives me peace of mind,” she says, and that makes all the difference.
Reyna: Building a Home
Reyna was 15 years old, and two months pregnant when she came to America.
Back home in El Salvador, she was forced to leave school in the fourth grade. Now, she was about to enter the ninth grade in a new country where she didn’t speak the language. “It was very difficult,” she remembers, “Everything was new to me.”
Her grandparents knew a local girl who had been pregnant and received help from Sheppard Pratt. “She told me they would watch my baby while I went to school, so I wanted to know more!” Reyna remembers.
Leslie was four months old when Reyna enrolled in Keys to Success, where she stayed for the next three years—until her high school graduation.
“Without Keys to Success, I wouldn’t have been able to attend high school. I didn’t have the money to pay for a babysitter. I couldn’t work. My parents were working so they couldn’t watch my daughter.”
Program staff watched Leslie during the school day and ensured that she was hitting developmental milestones. “I felt like they treated my daughter just like I would. I never had any concerns. I always felt like they were amazing. My daughter was safe and in a good place.”
The program was more than daycare, though. “They picked me up in the morning, with a car seat for my baby. They took us to daycare. Then, a school bus would pick me up there and take me to school. The same thing in the afternoon. No one else would have done that. It meant a lot to me.”
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, Reyna would stay late at Keys to Success for tutoring. “They had a translator for me while I was still learning English and gave me lots of time to practice. They helped with homework and gave us healthy food to eat.” Tutoring was available all summer long, too. “They taught us more than just school… they taught us about finances, and about life,” she remembers.
After high school, Reyna went to work full time – but she also enrolled in college, taking a few courses at a time. One day, she hopes to get her degree and get a good job, “so I can provide a good education for my daughter.”
These days, Reyna is working at the same restaurant where she has worked since high school—where she has climbed the ladder from dishwasher, to cook, to manager. Leslie loves to play outside and help her mom cook.
“I want girls who are going through a lot to know about this program,” she says. “Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did in these few years. And one of my main goals was finishing high school. I succeeded because of them.”