Robert Morales is on a mission to revolutionize care for people experiencing homelessness. He serves as the coordinator and supervisor for specialists at PARES, a pilot program in San Juan, Puerto Rico. PARES is a part of CABHI, a government grant program in Puerto Rico.
As a person who experienced homelessness for 18 years and fought substance abuse for 30 years, Robert understands the struggles that his clients face. Now, rehabilitated, he has earned a bachelor's degree in social work.
"Who better to understand the people who are in the streets than someone who was in the streets?" said Robert, who serves in the area where he was homeless. Many of the specialists he trains to work with PARES have experienced homelessness or substance abuse issues as well.
The PARES specialists provide clients with food and access to shelter and help to meet their basic needs, while also connecting them to agencies and programs where they can receive treatment, if needed. "The basic tools that a PARES specialist needs are empathy and sensibility," Robert said.
PARES is a grant-funded program that was intended to be a one-year pilot, Robert said. Now, due to the program's success it is in its third year. Eighty-five percent of the clients who have done intake through PARES have gone either to rehab or different programs to get the services they need, according to Robert.
Robert will even take clients on the bus and escort them to a detox program, or a housing agency, or to get food and supplies, to provide that extra level of support, when necessary.
Robert has helped to introduce new strategies and approaches that better address the realities for people who have been living with addiction, mental illness and other issues, while living on the street. He knows all the barriers, obstacles, technicalities and challenges.
Even though his experience as a person who formerly experienced homelessness is important, the clinical and professional services he provides are equally important, Robert said. By earning a degree in social work, he feels that he can help his clients to navigate the system more successfully. He can manage their cases and follow up with them to keep them on track as well.
For Robert, his work is never done. He also serves on the board of the Coalition of Homeless People in San Juan, the Buen Pastor Shelter, as well as volunteering for events conducted by NHS of Puerto Rico.
What some people need, more than services, more than money and more than clothing, Robert said, "is family and attention." For as many people as he can, he will be there to speak with them, eat with them, or just sit.
"It is very important for me that they do not see me as a guy who wants to just stack up numbers for any audit or any program or who just wants to secure his job," Robert said. "I feel proud that they see that I really care, because I was there. I was there for them for real."
Robert has also earned admiration for his leadership skills. "[Robert] is a leader that is very inspiring," says Cristian Miranda, from NHS of Puerto Rico, a NeighborWorks network organization, which nominated Robert for the Dorothy Richardson Award for Resident Leadership. "Whenever we are with Robert doing an activity, people know him. Some of the people, when they see him, they will cross the street to say thank you.
"I've seen Robert doing what he has done without anything at all. I think it says a lot about what his character is and what people can achieve if they want to do it. That is what we want for a community development program," said Cristian. "We want leaders to not just wait for government, and wait for NHS, or for anybody, but to step up and become better leaders. Then we can work together through partnerships. He is a model to follow for our community leaders."
Interview conducted with translation by Cristian Miranda, NHS of Puerto Rico