Beyond Backgrounds

“I believe that housing is a human right.”

Peer recovery support is a non-clinical, strengths-based approach to helping individuals on their recovery journey. It’s provided by people who have lived experience with both substance use disorder and recovery, known as Peer Recovery Specialists here at Minnesota Recovery Connection. They work 1:1 with individuals in activities that engage, educate and support the person as they work toward personal recovery goals. Having a safe place to live and call home is a critical part of recovery but often not easy to secure when mental health or substance use disorders have contributed to bad credit, a criminal record, or other background barriers.

In 2020 MRC partnered with HousingLink to provide peer recovery support services to help people overcome barriers to renting their own place to live. Beyond Backgrounds is a program intended to help people who are able to pay rent but face challenges in finding housing due to criminal, credit or rental history barriers in their background. Participants who identify as seeking help for mental health or substance use disorder can get connected with one of MRC’s Housing Support/Peer Recovery Specialists who will provide peer recovery support and help them navigate finding housing. Additionally, when a landlord rents to a Beyond Backgrounds participant, they have access to up to $2,000 of free insurance provided by HousingLink if the landlord incurs qualifying expenses that exceed the security deposit.

The program started last January as an initiative of the East Metro Crisis Alliance to serve Ramsey, Washington, and Dakota Counties and has since expanded to Anoka County and the Saint Cloud area. Almost 100 people have been successfully housed in the program’s first year, and about half of the people housed choose to continue working with a Peer Recovery Specialist for ongoing recovery support.

MRC’s Peer Support Project Coordinator Justin McNeal built the infrastructure for MRC’s role in the Beyond Backgrounds partnership and was the program’s sole Housing Support/Peer Recovery Specialist during its first few months. As the program took off, however, he quickly needed to add three more Peer Recovery Specialists to the Twin Cities team: Howard Collier, Ruth Kashmark, and Farhia Budul. In November the program expanded to Saint Cloud, and MRC partnered with the local RCO, the Recovery Community Network, to have Cynthia Garcia Magallenes serve as the Housing Support/Peer Recovery Specialist for that area.

“I believe that housing an individual is one of their basic needs and if you can get someone housed they are more likely to have a stable life,” said Justin. “It’s incredible how hard it is to find a place for someone to live when they have multiple barriers, most of which are associated with a time when they were not in recovery.” The Housing Support/Peer Recovery Specialists spend part of their time finding landlords who are willing to work with people with barriers, which can be a challenge at times.

As hard as it is to hear “no” from landlords, all the hard work is worth it when someone is successfully housed. “The other day I got to be with one of my participants as she accepted the keys to her new home,” said Ruth Kashmark. “She and her four children had been living in a hotel room for a year. Getting her into a single-family home after all she’d been through was a victory for her, for me, and for the recovery community.”

Ruth has taken over leading the Beyond Backgrounds team now that Justin has moved on to build another new MRC program, and she’s excited to see it grow. “I’ve had my own barriers to housing as a result of substance use disorder, and being able to help others overcome those same barriers is something I’m passionate about.”

If you have questions about Beyond Backgrounds or would like help enrolling in the program, feel free to contact Ruth at or 612-584-4158, ext. 232.

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