Nafisah Alim has worked in the social services field for 20 years, but for the 20 years of her life before that, she was “on the other side of the table,” she said.
“I’ve been through every system you can imagine,” Alim said.
Her mother had schizoaffective disorder and often left home for months on end, and her father struggled with a substance use disorder, while she raised five children on her own. Now, those experiences inform her work as the executive director of People, Places, and Dreams, a Cleveland-based wellness agency Alim founded in 2019.
Alim founded the agency to provide mental health and addiction recovery services to people of color, women, trans people, and others in the LGBTQ+ community. Currently based on Prospect Avenue in MidTown, the agency is opening a new outpatient sober house specifically for trans people this month in Cleveland Heights. The new house, along with another LGBTQ+ sober house that’s set to open later this year, is part of a larger $6 million project aimed at expanding the agency’s services for the LGBTQ+ community.
Those sober houses will add to the two outpatient sober houses for men and women the agency already operates, which Alim said are occupied mostly by LGBTQ+ people. Outside of People, Places, and Dreams’ LGBTQ+ sober houses, only one other exists in the state, and it too, is in the greater Cleveland area.
Nationwide data compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that people who identify as LGBTQ+ are more likely to have a substance use disorder than people who identify as heterosexual. Additionally, research shows that gay and bisexual men in specialized recovery programs saw better outcomes than gay and bisexual men in non-specialized programs.
However, a study of the availability of those specialized programs found that only 7.4 percent of recovery agencies offer programs tailored to LGBTQ+ people.
In Cleveland, Alim and Terri Williams, the agency’s LGBT outreach and peer support specialist, said there’s a need for mental health and addiction recovery services specifically tailored for LGBTQ+ people of color.
“Overall, people of color have just been left out of recovery and treatment and mental health all the way around,” said Williams, a Black trans woman. “To be LGBT, and then trans specifically, I mean, we’re just totally cut out completely.”
Williams spent years of her early life as a sex worker struggling with a substance use disorder. Her recovery process wasn’t easy, she said, in part because she didn’t feel welcome in some local LGBTQ+ recovery spaces that served mostly white people.
While local mental health providers and recovery programs offer services that can work for LGBTQ+ people of color and other marginalized populations, many don’t prioritize programming that caters to the needs of those groups, said Phyllis Harris, executive director of the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland.
“We certainly, as people of color and queer people of color, are sometimes not the first thought in terms of service delivery,” Harris said.
The LGBT Community Center refers clients to People, Places, and Dreams, Harris said, because queer people of color are a priority there. Those on the agency’s staff that aren’t themselves LGBTQ+ people of color have been trained to understand the needs and challenges faced by them. Many of those challenges stem from the discrimination LGBTQ+ people of color face both for their sexuality and the color of their skin, Harris said.
For some queer people of color struggling with substance use disorders, she said the thought of stepping into a recovery space operated by people who don’t look like them or understand their culture dissuades them from seeking treatment. That’s why it’s important to consider the representation of different races in an organization’s leadership: it’s generally a good way to gauge the group’s ability to care for marginalized communities, Harris said.
People, Places, and Dreams is a minority women-led organization. Additionally, it’s run by peer supporters, meaning that all of its service providers – like Alim – have experiences in common with the people in their care. It’s about “learning from people who have walked down that road,” Williams said.
Given her particular life experience, Williams is spearheading People, Places, and Dreams’ programming for trans people, starting with group sessions and other community-building programs at the new sober house. Through the program, Williams hopes to create a comfortable space in which to discuss trans culture and create a peer support network composed of trans women.
“Girls need to feel comfortable,” she said. “If they have a little hair on their face, or take their wig off, or whatever, you know? They need to be able to do that and not feel like somebody is looking at them weird.”
Offering clients a new community is the core function of People, Places, and Dreams. Williams, like many people with substance use disorders, had to find a new community when she sought to get clean.
“A part of the whole sex work is, when you’re involved in that, it’s its own set of people,” Williams said. “So you have to find a whole new set of people, you know? Everyone that you were dealing with beforehand is all into drugs and prostitution.”
In addition to the new sober houses, People, Places, and Dreams also plans to open a peer center this summer on Prospect Ave., just down the street from its headquarters. At this center, Alim said, anyone will be able to find a community representing their lived experiences and participate in group mental health sessions with empathetic listeners.
“It’s gonna be a safe space for the entire behavioral community,” Alim said. “No matter where you are in your recovery, you’ll have somewhere to go.”
“If you [just] started, we can connect you with services. If you’ve been there forever, and you want to give back, you can become a peer supporter and lead groups. We need that. We need everyone to feel included.”
Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s confidential, 24-hour helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
Learn more about People, Places, and Dreams on their website.
Michael Indriolo is a reporting fellow at The Land
This project is part of Connecting the Dots between Race and Health, a project of Ideastream Public Media funded by The Dr. Donald J. Goodman and Ruth Weber Goodman Philanthropic Fund of The Cleveland Foundation.