Guest Author: Gary Cobb
Community Outreach Coordinator at Central City Concern | Portland, OR
This week during National Health Center Week, we honor and recognize all of the diverse communities and populations Health Centers across the country provide with high-quality, affordable, and culturally competent care. Today, in recognition of the care Health Centers provide to the Homeless population, we are honoring our Health Care for the Homeless Health Center Grantees and the thousands of health center patients currently experiencing homelessness.
Your story matters. My story matters. Our stories matter. My name is Gary Cobb and I am the Community Outreach Coordinator for Central City Concern (CCC) which operates a community health center for people experiencing homelessness in Portland, Oregon. Part of my job as the Community Outreach Coordinator is to listen to people’s stories – stories of transformation and healing. Taken as a whole, the individual stories collectively tell CCC’s organizational story. This organizational story is about a comprehensive system of integrated care that includes affordable supported housing, patient-centered primary care, employment, recovery, and community.
In addition to listening to stories, my job is to work with current and past patients to develop their stories to use in public testimony to influence policy and budgetary decisions. Successful storytelling promotes leadership, and this leadership role helps bring patients out of the darkness of isolation, despair, and active addiction. These stories get shared at different settings and stages ranging from federal, state, city, and county budget forums and hearings to individual meetings with policy makers and community focus groups. We have to go public with our stories. Our faces and stories humanize the services that health centers provide.
My own story at CCC begins in 2000 when I came to Hooper Detoxification Center to get help with a long-time heroin addiction. I was in pretty bad shape physically, mentally, and spiritually. After detox, I entered CCC’s Recovery Mentor Program, which houses and lends peer-led recovery support to folks as they engage in outpatient treatment services. I received both primary and complimentary health care through CCC’s community health center. Participants of the Recovery Mentor Program complete the program when they graduate treatment and meet other goals they’ve set with their Peer Mentors. The Recovery Mentor Program has seen 70% of participants find success.
My own personal goals were to learn daily how to live free of drugs and alcohol, mend severed family ties, repay owed taxes, and find work so I could make ends meet. My housing situation progressed as I moved forward through my personal recovery process. I moved from transitional programmed housing into Permanent Supportive Housing within CCC. I started paying rent when I became employed – something I hadn’t done in a very long time. My first job at CCC was being a janitor at the Old Town Clinic, CCC’s federally qualified health center. My employee benefits package included private health insurance, so I was no longer using precious safety net services such as Oregon’s Medicaid Program which had paid for my outpatient addictions treatment.
I was really starting to enjoy my life without alcohol, drugs and behaviors associated with it. It was during this time I started doing volunteer community organizing. I learned to tell my story and listen to others tell theirs.
I found my calling in this early experience in organizing and advocating for addictions treatment and recovery supportive housing. I enjoy it – it’s a powerful process, and it needs to be done. As time moved on my job roles changed a bit, but I kept my community organizer lens and hat on as well as my ears open. This was a valuable set of tools for my different jobs including my current role as Community Outreach Coordinator. I currently report to CCC’s Public Policy Director and work with CCC’s Executive Leadership Team on prioritizing community organizing activities.
Staying in CCC recovery supportive housing helped in many different ways. I needed and wanted a safe, recovery supportive environment as I went through my process. As my personal recovery journey matured, so did my professional life.
The sum total of staying clean, working hard and my choice to be in recovery supportive housing opened up other doors for me, figuratively and literally. In 2010, I became a first-time home owner. I run my house with the same spirit of recovery support and nurturing to myself as I learned and practiced in CCC’s recovery supportive housing. I’m a good neighbor, and so are the many others who graduated treatment with me.
I do the work that I do and gather stories because it’s important. It’s important to the individuals telling them. It’s important for others to hear them. The stories I hear are made possible by the important services provided by CCC’s health centers, as well as its housing and employment programs. The stories I hear from people whose lives are being stabilized and mended by CCC’s community health center can be found all around us. Across the country, health centers are essential to improving the lives of people just like me. Each story of transformation shows that real people are at the heart of community health centers. Let’s listen to them.
Respectfully and in service,
Gary W. Cobb
Community Outreach Coordinator
Central City Concern