In 1966, the organization now known as New Vista became the first community mental health center in Kentucky. Today, New Vista— Lex End Homelessness (LEH) Continuum of Care partner—provides outpatient services to nearly 25,000 adults, children, and families in 17 Central Kentucky counties. Their mission is to “assist individuals and families in the enhancement of their emotional, mental and physical well-being by providing behavioral health, substance use and intellectual and developmental disability primary care services” especially to those who have limited means to access behavioral health support. As part of this mission, they offer a free 24-hour helpline (1.800.928.8000) and free clinical services at 52 program locations across Kentucky, including several in the Lexington area, with two Drop-in Centers dedicated to providing services for people who are experiencing homelessness.
Dylan Schell, New Vista Regional Director of Community and Housing Services, oversees all of New Vista’s housing services for those experiencing homelessness and the Employment Specialists on New Vista’s employment teams, in addition to overseeing the Madison County drop-in center in Richmond. When we talked with Schell, we got to hear about his journey from street outreach to his current position at New Vista, and how his position involves a passion for serving people with data analysis and systems improvement to provide high-quality, mental and behavioral services to people with acute needs in Lexington. Our conversation is below.
Q: Tell me a little bit about yourself – personal, professional, or anything else you’d like to share about who you are.
A: I’m [New Vista’s] Regional Director of Community and Housing Services. There’s a lot of different things that [entails]; but, to distill it down: I oversee our housing programs for those experiencing homelessness at the Madison County drop-in center, and I oversee our IPS support employment team. When it comes to housing and homelessness, I’ve been working in this field for over seven years now, and I have been serving folks experiencing homelessness that entire time. I did direct client work, both in Rapid Rehousing, permanent supportive housing, as well as street outreach services, and very briefly, did CoC referrals before coming to [New Vista] in an administrative role. I’ve been in this role for about two years now.
Q: How did you get involved with your current role and/or homelessness advocacy more broadly?
A: I kind of fell into it, which I think happens to a lot of people. I had been working primarily in Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities [IDD] services prior, both during college and immediately upon graduating for a few years before moving to Kentucky. And when I did that, I was looking for something that was a good fit for my skill set and the things that I like to do. You know, fundamentally, I think what it boils down to in this type of field is being passionate about serving people and doing what you can to support them. I found a position at a community partner agency, New Beginnings. It was a good fit. I worked there for several years, primarily doing rapid rehousing. I was part of getting their Permanent Supportive Housing [PSH] program up and running. I didn’t do it all: But, I provided the direct service. It was a well-performing program. I ended up moving over to the Community Action Council, where I did street outreach work for several years before coming to New Vista.
Q: What does a typical day of work look like for you?
A: For my role, it pretty much changes all the time. I’d say an average day is going to have two or three supervisions with staff where I’ll meet with them to provide support, quality control measures, and career development. I help them case conference difficult situations and make sure that the folks are doing well in the program so that we can ensure that [our clients] continue to advance and eventually exit to more independent housing. Beyond that, there’s a lot of work surrounding data quality and trying to integrate our systems better into the overall outreach. Beyond that, it’s things like discussing possible expansions and trying to ensure that we’re providing high-quality service as far-reaching and as intensely as we can.
Q: Why is the work you do important? What is the value of the work you do (to the clients and/or to the community)?
A: For the work that I specifically do, the most important thing is being able to apply my personal experience doing direct service to the way that we design future programs and modify the ones that we have to better serve our client needs in a changing and difficult housing market. I bring a perspective from someone on the ground. It helps the staff to have someone to debrief with that can help troubleshoot problems and mitigate burnout.
When we look at the value of the work we do for the community, the canned response here sounds cold but is accurate. If you disregard the humanitarian crisis of homelessness, which is hard to do— but let’s pretend you are trying to convince someone with the mindset who doesn’t care, or believes experiencing homelessness is an individual’s fault—the “cold” data on homelessness show us that it costs significantly less, to all of our systems, to house a person, and provide services to them than it does to do nothing. Because doing nothing costs a lot.
When you look at the costs for policing, emergency medical services, clean-ups— all of the associated things that come with that, including reduced spending capacity—it does hurt the economy to have people that can’t work and buy things at the scale that a housed person typically can. When you look at it from that perspective, it’s clear cut—this is the obvious thing to do. But then when you add in the humanitarian piece—which I think is fundamentally the most important—and add in the fact that there are people suffering out there for largely economic reasons, if we can resolve or mitigate that for people, that’s an improvement. Reducing that human suffering is a net gain for our society.
Q: What does New Vista provide to the community?
A: That is a lot. When we’re talking about clients experiencing homelessness, specifically, our drop-in centers are the first connection they will have with New Vista. They can simply walk in during business hours and access a shower, snacks, and temporary relief from the elements, as well as connect to a shelter, peer support, and therapeutic services. It also acts as an intake point for New Vista services in general, which can lead to referrals to substance use treatment and/or therapeutic services. There’s a lot that a person can access simply by walking through the door. The drop-in center is an extremely low-barrier way to do that. There’s no requirement to engage in service to access the basic things— if a person wants to take a shower, they don’t have to agree to services, they don’t have to share their life story, they can just sign up. And then when they’re ready, and they feel comfortable with the staff there, they can begin that process. The idea is to meet those folks who are in the pre-contemplative stages of change to begin having those discussions. And it serves as a nice connection point to Lexington’s Coordinated Entry System.
The program I oversee–the Permanent Supportive Housing Program—provides intensive housing support to people who are deemed to be the most acute in our system—they have the most complex needs and generally have been experiencing homelessness the longest. And those are the folks that get referred to our program. Housing individuals in those situations can be complicated: there are often criminal records as well as physical and mental health conditions. To address all of this at once with someone who may have been experiencing homelessness for the better part of a decade—it’s challenging, to say the least.
Our staff does a fantastic job of meeting people where they are [at], getting them housed first. Once housed, they can begin to make goals for some of those areas that our participants hadn’t had the opportunity to address while they were experiencing homelessness. And that’s one of those things that is difficult to quantify the benefit, right? How do you quantify a person being able to address their mental health needs for the first time in years? You can’t attach a number to that easily. But qualitatively, I can say that it can be transformative to go through the housing-first process. It could lead to very positive outcomes.
When it comes to benefiting the community, the connection is obvious: There are people who formerly were significantly more marginalized and are now able to participate in society in a way where they’re less likely to be discriminated against than they were before.
Q: What is one thing you wish Lexington community members knew about homelessness?
A: I would say the cruelty of the experience of homelessness. In a society with so much available, we have a population of people that don’t have access to even the basics: Food, water, shelter.
There isn’t a moral failing of the people experiencing homelessness. This is something that as a society we have allowed to happen. There’s no economic or social reason for this suffering to exist. I think if people understood how painful and dehumanizing the experience is, they would be more likely to be empathetic to those experiencing homelessness and pursue changes to this system. As a society, we can choose to stop it.
Get involved with LEH by joining the Continuum of Care today. Becoming a partner is free and highly encouraged for any organization or person working in the field of human services. Learn more on our website or by following us on social media @lexendhomelessness.
You can also contact one of our many partners, such as New Vista, to ask about opportunities to get involved.