Andres Galvan is a mental health client specialist at the Watsonville Health Center.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Working in Santa Cruz

How I Got My Job: Case manager Andres Galvan on confronting housing, addiction and mental health crises

Mental health client specialist Andres Galvan works at the intersection of Santa Cruz County’s mental health, homelessness and drug-overdose crises. Now almost 17 years in recovery himself, Galvan understands the importance of counselors and others who work in the mental health and addictions fields treating clients with empathy and compassion. “You can’t just go out there for the paycheck,” he says. “Your heart has got to be in it because you’re going to come across some difficult things. You got to keep that open mind and that’s a difficult task.”

Andres Galvan, 44, is a mental health client specialist at the Watsonville Health Center. Galvan was once in residential treatment himself, a program that would eventually become his life’s work. While in his own treatment, Galvan met a lot of supportive people and learned more about himself.

Now almost 17 years in recovery, Galvan first entered the Watsonville bilingual residential treatment program Si Se Puede after his release from incarceration in 2007. After completing about 3½ months in the residential program for substance abuse, Galvan continued to spend time there, using it as his safe space. “While I was there,” said Galvan, “I was able to meet a lot of really great people and learn about myself most of all. It was a jump-start into my own adventure.”

After he completed his treatment, Galvan was able to volunteer at Si Se Puede, driving residents to 12-step programs and other events, and was eventually taken on as an employee by the program.

Galvan’s supervisor at Si Se Puede suggested that he take classes at Cabrillo College to get certified as a drug and alcohol counselor. He took classes in psychology and drug and alcohol recovery in preparation for the state exam for drugs and alcohol counseling.

After several years at Si Se Puede, Galvan moved on to the Camp Recovery Center in Scotts Valley, where he got the opportunity to work with adolescents, which he says he found very rewarding.

After his time at the Camp Recovery Center, Galvan worked full-time with the methadone clinic at Janus of Santa Cruz and eventually ended up in his position with Santa Cruz County.

A note Andres Galvan keeps taped to his monitor at work: "Life doesn't end when you die... Life ends when you give up..."
A note Andres Galvan keeps taped to his monitor at work: “Life doesn’t end when you die... Life ends when you give up...”
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Galvan’s work resides at the intersection of mental health and addiction recovery, which often go hand in hand. “I have encountered individuals dealing with homelessness [who] neglect to attend to their mental health due to the struggles that come with being homeless,” Galvan said. In some cases, untreated mental illnesses can lead to addiction as a coping mechanism or an outlet to escape reality. Galvan says he has also encountered individuals who use stimulant drugs like methamphetamine as a “safety mechanism” to stay up long hours to avoid getting victimized while sleeping.

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Galvan also confronts the deepening fentanyl crisis in his work, saying that fentanyl is often found in illicit substances which individuals might not be aware of, making the crisis even more dangerous and difficult to contain. Education about Narcan, a treatment for opioid overdoses, is crucial in saving lives both inside the homeless population and outside it, Galvan says.

Outside of his work, Galvan also coaches a handful of youth baseball teams. Galvan emphasizes the importance of educating kids about drugs and alcohol while they’re young to show them that “there’s no future in that lifestyle.”

Lookout: How would you describe your job?

Andres Galvan: It’s diverse. It can be different every day. I work with the clinic’s department with the County of Santa Cruz — I’m a case manager with the medication assisted treatment program, but I also do a lot of outreach within the community.

Lookout: What inspired you to pursue the field of mental health and addiction advocacy?

Galvan: My personal experience is one thing that inspired me. The knowledge I’ve learned, whether it’s through schooling or personal experiences, and being able to apply that on a daily basis to help the next individual out is very fulfilling. Addiction and recovery is not a black-and-white thing, it’s always a gray area. So what worked for me might not work for the next individual. It’s important to me to meet the individual where they’re at to see how I can help them today and try to bring that smile to their face. Addiction, homelessness and issues of that nature is a difficult lifestyle, but being able to be available and help someone out is where my heart is at.

Lookout: What does a typical day on the job look like for you?

Galvan: Each day varies. Sometimes I facilitate groups where there’s a doctor in the group with me being able to address the medical needs, the addiction and the medication all at once. I also do a lot of individual counseling, groups aren’t for everybody, you just have to find out where they’re at with that. Sometimes I’m out in the field at the levee in Watsonville doing outreach [in homeless encampments].

It can really be different at all times. On Mondays, from 1-4 p.m., we’re at the Salvation Army shelter in Watsonville. It’s a drop-in clinic. We have medical staff, mental health nurse practitioners, registered nurses, medical assistants, outreach workers, benefits rep and medication-assisted treatment counselors, so it’s kind of a one-stop shop. Other days I facilitate a group with the doctors in the morning and in the afternoon I meet patients as they come in. Thursday mornings I’m at the local levee in Watsonville at the end of Union and Front street. We load up backpacks with supplies like water, Narcan, socks and snacks, whatever we can access. Lately, we’ve been cooking breakfast out there for people. We’ve been able to feed anywhere from 50 to 70 people. We’re able to go to the homeless encampments and provide our services there.

Andres Galvan showing a tattoo of his brother "Kilo" who passed away in 2021 at age 43 due to health complications.
Andres Galvan showing a tattoo of his brother Kilo, who died in 2021 at age 43 due to health complications.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What’s your favorite thing about your career?

Galvan: I think it’s just being in the helping field and being able to be of service to all those in need. Even just giving a pair of socks to someone, that smile that pair of socks brings to somebody is huge. Being able to cook for the homeless population is huge. Overall, I love just being available and being in the helping profession.

Lookout: What are some challenges you face?

Galvan: Unfortunately right now I think one of the biggest challenges we’re facing is overdoses. The fentanyl we’re struggling with and the xylazine [a potent animal tranquilizer that’s increasing being mixed with opioids] is also out here. It’s difficult and it’s heart-wrenching because you build bonds with these individuals out there, you become close with them, and to hear that someone passed away or is sick takes a toll. We are human and we’re caring individuals and so the overdoses and the fentanyl use and just having to fight that battle is one of the difficult things at this time.

Lookout: What changes has your program gone through since you began?

Galvan: Here within Santa Cruz County, we’ve established these mobile clinics a few months back. We’re able to go out there and meet people at their encampments or in the community. We have a mobile van that’s kind of like a clinic room on wheels. Before, if they wanted services, they would have to come to the clinics, but now we’re able to go to them. Being able to take what they need to them has gotten so much better. With the clinics, it’s us here at Watsonville Health Center, Homeless Persons Health Project on Coral Street, and then we have the Emeline Drive location. We build a team from all three clinics and work together to go out there and provide services.

Andres Galvan holds up a serenity prayer he gives out to those he helps.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What kind of person is best fit for this kind of job?

Galvan: Your heart has got to be in it most of all. You also want to have the knowledge to be aware of the services you’re providing. It’s easy to want to help someone, but at the same time you don’t want to cause harm. I understand that working pays the bills, but if you’re going to go out there with the mindset of “I’m just doing my job,” I’m not saying it’s wrong, but you have to understand that you’re dealing with a real person. That’s someone’s dad, that’s someone’s sibling. You can’t just go out there for the paycheck. Your heart has got to be in it because you’re going to come across some difficult things. You got to keep that open mind and that’s a difficult task. Addiction is a rough thing. Add mental health on top of that and then homelessness, it’s difficult. You have to be able to have that compassion and empathy to be able to have those difficult conversations. You got to have that compassion, that empathy, and your heart has got to be in it.

Lookout: How much can someone expect to make in this field?

Galvan: It all depends on what agency you’re working for, right? If you’re working for the county, it’s going to be good. If you’re working for a nonprofit, maybe not so much. It just depends on what position you are in or your job title or your experience, things vary. You’re going to make enough to get by, though. Let’s just say it can range anywhere from $25 to $45 an hour.

Lookout: If someone wanted to pursue this career, what kind of schooling would be most helpful?

Galvan: If you’re trying to get into the addiction field working as a drug and alcohol counselor, you can get all the necessary classes here at Cabrillo College. Then, of course, you have to do an internship and in-person training. You still have to get certified through a [certified alcohol drug counselor] agency and they have certain standards you have to meet. You have to do a certain amount of trainings, classroom hours and real experience before you can take the test to become certified as a drug and alcohol counselor.

Andres Galvan is a mental health client specialist at the Watsonville Health Center.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What is something you wish everyone could be aware of when it comes to mental health support?

Galvan: There’s a lot of resources out there, especially in Santa Cruz County. Through the county, we have the medication assisted treatment program, Encompass Community Services, Janus of Santa Cruz, Sobriety Works, New Life [Community Services]; those are all treatment facilities that are available for adults. There’s also Pajaro Valley Prevention & Student Assistance and other youth services through Encompass or the Camp Recovery Center. So, there’s a lot of services out there, you just have to look out for them. Being aware of all the resources available is going to be beneficial for anybody — whether you’re looking for yourself or you’re looking for a loved one, there’s tons of support out there.

Lookout: You’ve mentioned “ending the stigma” throughout this interview. What are some steps that community members can take toward eliminating the stigma?

Galvan: Overall, seeing the individual as a human and eliminating all the labels. Keeping a willingness to help that next individual. It’s all about kicking down barriers and opening up doors. No one says you have to help everyone, no one says you have to help at all, but if you choose not to help, at least don’t make things worse for an individual.

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