We see our students as agents of change… it made sense for us to address the social issues that surround us – homelessness and addiction.”
By: Lucy Birmingham
Daniel Peterson had hit rock bottom when he met psychotherapist Angela Arcaro last year at Midnight Mission in the heart of Los Angeles’ Skid Row. He had been through countless recovery programs over the years, but none had kept him from relapsing into drug addiction and homelessness. “The difference was therapy with Angela,” he explains. “She helped save my life.”
Angela’s success with Daniel and her other clients at the Mission comes from her own remarkable journey out of the depths of drug addiction and an abusive marriage to doctoral candidate at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “People in recovery need to know that you understand what they’re going through,” she explains. “I get it. I’ve been there. So that has been a huge part of helping me to help others.”
She also maintains an unusual policy. “I’m more of an existential therapist,” she reveals. “Normally we go by boundaries. For instance, I shouldn’t have an open door policy. I should be more firm about appointment times and holding my clients to that. But I feel with this population, they need to be heard when they want to be heard. As therapists, we need to be more available.”
An open door policy has been the mainstay of the Midnight Mission since it was established over a hundred years ago as a safe place for homeless men to seek help and recovery. “Now anyone can walk in here at any time, 24-hours a day, and get the help that they need,” says Jeanette Rowe, Director for Programs. “That’s really special in a county the size of Los Angeles. There are so few doors that are wide open like this. It’s something to be very proud of.”
The Mission provides 290 beds in its shelter program, in addition to many other services. Services include the Homelight Family Living program, which offers housing for homeless families with the goal of family reunification; and Crisis in Bridge Housing, a program that allows homeless single men and women to stay at the Mission for up to 90 days while getting stabilized and securing housing. The agency also offers job training, job placement, and the Healthy Living Program, a one-year recovery program for men aimed at self-sufficiency through education. In response to the increasing number of homeless women, the Mission has also established a shelter and support program.
The number of homeless in the Greater Los Angeles region has risen dramatically to approximately 53,000 in 2018, from about 35,000 in 2007, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). This number is second only to New York City. The cause is not only drug and alcohol addiction, but also a lack of affordable housing as a rise in rents have forced people out of their homes. Most have never been homeless before.
Angela wanted to work with the homeless, and like many students participated a training program The Chicago School established with the Midnight Mission three years ago. Seasoned licensed psychologists who have retired from agencies like the Department of Mental Health, but continue to work as consultants and in private practice, supervise the students.
“Angela has done some amazing work at the Midnight Mission,” says Terry Masi, Senior Director of Clinical Training at The Chicago School. “We see our students as agents of change,” says Masi. “And having a campus here in L.A. so close to Skid Row, it made sense for us to address the social issues that surround us – homelessness and addiction.”
The University is in a unique position to do that. “The Midnight Mission does not have the funding needed to hire a licensed psychologist to provide mental health services,” she explains. “So this is where we come in by providing our practicum students [in training].”
The Chicago School has a distinctive structure to its services, and feels that the results garnered by this different approach merit its use. “We spend more time with clients, I believe, while applying evidence-based practices with a holistic approach,” Masi says. “With Daniel, for instance, Angela has applied cognitive behavioral therapy to address some of the ways he thinks about his situation, and how to change that. There is also psycho dynamic therapy where we are able to have the client look at the defense mechanisms that they employ in order to keep their addiction going.” The Chicago School does not choose just one specific approach to treatment, she emphasizes. “We’re using many, so we are able to meet the client where they are.”
Angela was almost 50 and a working, single mother with a teenage son when a friend suggested they look at schools to earn a Doctor of Psychology degree. “It wasn’t my intention to go back to school. I had just finished my master’s,” she says. But the weekend and evening classes The Chicago School offers worked well with her schedule. She also liked the atmosphere of the downtown L.A. campus with its diverse and older students. “I felt I could really fit in,” she says. The scholarship the School offered made it financially possible. “It was a sign that I really needed to go through with it.”
Through her training and work at Midnight Mission, Angela has found that many of her clients have experienced childhood trauma, and were struggling with issues in the past. “Trauma can give you illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and drug or alcohol addiction allows you to avoid dealing with those issues,” she says. “In Daniel’s case, he knew the 12-step recovery program, the AA [Alcoholics Anonymous] Big Book, in and out. He could quote passages from it, and would intellectualize it. But the book was not giving him the answers he needed,” she says.
Angela’s therapy focused on family dynamics and family systems. “It helped Daniel to open his eyes and see the patterns he was making and the decisions he had made.” She says, “I wouldn’t call his condition a mental illness. I’d call it trauma. His depression and anxiety came from his traumatic childhood events. His drug addiction came from that. We like to drown our sorrows in our addiction. Now, though, he’s doing great. I wish I had a before and after photo,” she adds with a big smile.
For Angela, hope has led her forward. “When we have a sense of hope, we change,” she says. “I should have died at the hands of my abuser, but it was hope that drove me to go back to school. It’s what drove me to where I am today. I know I’m here for something bigger, and I need to share that with people who are going through the same struggles that I went through.”