An Interview with Peter Johnson

by Gordon Nary


Gordon: When were you appointed Vice President of Development for St.

Matthew’s House and what are your primary responsibilities?


Peter: I oversee the fundraising and marketing for St. Matthew's House, one of the foremost direct social service agencies in Southwest Florida.


Gordon: Approximately how many people does St. Matthew's House care for?


Peter: St. Matthew's House shelters over 300 people every night in our various emergency shelters and transitional housing facilities. Also we are feeding over 10,000 families per month through our food pantries and thousands of chronically homeless are served every month through our soup kitchens. Finally, we oversee jail chaplain services in Collier and Hendry Counties.


Gordon: What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had upon the homeless?


Peter: First and foremost, there was a surge in food assistance need from the working poor. We went from serving 300 families per month pre-COVID pandemic to serving over 10,000 families per month during the pandemic. Although there has not been a corresponding surge in emergency shelter needs yet, we anticipate experiencing a similar surge after the moratorium on evictions is eliminated. Lastly, there is an unprecedented surge in addiction issues, including overdoses, which we are only beginning to see in statistical reports.


Gordon: Please provide an overview of addiction challenges in the homeless.


Peter: Studies have long shown that over 60% of homeless people suffer from addiction and mental illness. While this statistic clearly shows a strong correlation between homelessness and addiction, we also believe that the true cause of homelessness is this: isolation. After all, many of us know people who suffer from mental illness and addiction who never become homeless. Those who come to St. Matthew’s House have nowhere else to turn. We believe the best way to end homelessness among the people we serve is to bring them into community so that we not only bless them with shelter and work, but also with relationships to help them navigate the challenges that they face A great theologian once said, “seeing with the eyes of Christ I can give to others more than their outward necessities, I can give to others the look of love which they crave.” St. Matthew’s House wants to not only provide material assistance, but the social network that is even more important.


Gordon: What type of assistance does St Matthew's House provide to the homeless with addiction challenges?


Peter: Seeing the endless cycle of homeless men and women repeatedly returning to our homeless shelter because of addiction struggles, St. Matthew’s House CEO, Vann Ellison, founded a yearlong addiction recovery program called Justin’s Place Drawing on best practices from both secular and faith-based addiction recovery program—what we call and integrated model—Justin’s Place has one of the highest success rates in the country: Approximately 85% of Justin’s Place graduates are sober two years after graduating from the program.


Gordon: Please provide an overview of your treatment program for the homeless with an opioid addiction.


Peter: Our program is an abstinence program, which means that we are a program for those who want to eliminate their dependence opioid-infused medication assisted treatments (MATs) like Methadone and Suboxone. Currently over half of our 150+ Justin’s Place residents report that some form of opioid (heroin, fentanyl, or prescription opiates) was their drug of choice. Generally, when opiate addicts choose our program they have gone through some form of medical detox, though we occasionally take people who want to detox without medical supervision. We will accept opiate addicts who are on opiate blocker medication (like Vivitrol), but we expect anyone coming to our program who is currently on opiate-infused MATS (like Methadone and Suboxone) to taper off the medication within the first 45 days of our yearlong program.


Gordon: What role does religious faith have in the management of opioid abuse?


Peter: We believe all life-dominating vice, at its root, is a spiritual sickness. Therefore, the solution to addiction requires a spiritual component. This does not mean that we neglect the physical/biological aspects of the addicts that we serve. On the contrary: we avail ourselves of the latest medical science on addiction recovery to address the corporal component of addiction recovery. But the human person is more than just a collection of his/her physical parts. Therefore, we must find a solution that both aims to both address corporal aspect of our residents—and also the transcendent qualities of these people in our care.


Gordon: We thank you and your colleagues for the lifesaving work that you do.