“When people ask me to describe a typical work day, I never know how to answer the question. Every day is so different.” – Avera Morrison, Elliot Community Human Services.
Street outreach is an unpredictable and complex job that requires a wide range of abilities. Many of the skills required for homeless outreach are developed on the job by learning from interactions with other outreach workers. Consequently, outreach workers are an invaluable source of knowledge for one another.
Barbara Lucci works in the Homeless and Outreach Services Department within Elliot Community Human Services, Inc. She began doing street outreach in Worcester, Massachusetts in April 2000, reaching out to individuals who live on the streets and rarely or never enter emergency shelter. Barbara meets the immediate needs of individuals by providing blankets, food, water, and clothing. As she builds relationships and develops trust, she helps link them to public benefits, mental health services, and case management.
Barbara has many tips and stories of effective outreach. One of the most striking things about listening to her talk is how simple the principles of outreach seem, even though it can be a very difficult job.
Be prepared: Before you start each day of outreach, anticipate the work to be done and plan ahead. This could include putting an extra health care application in your backpack for a person you hope to run into or bringing extra bottles of water to leave at the campsite you discovered the day before.
Show respect: Displaying respect can include simple gestures like remembering the name of someone you have not seen in years or taking extra time to hide water and socks at someone’s campsite to ensure their home is not detected.
Know when to stick around: You likely visit many people every day but when you encounter someone who is recently disconnected from their support systems and is feeling particularly lonely, it is important to take extra time with them.
Know when to walk away: You may encounter someone who wants to monopolize your time but does not want to engage in a meaningful way. Perhaps they do not need anything but they want to argue with you. If you feel that an interaction is not productive, it is okay to end the exchange and walk away.
Connect with community resources: You encounter members of the community every day while you are conducting street outreach. Take the time to introduce yourself and tell them about your program. If community members are receptive, educate them about homelessness and the measures they can take to support people who are experiencing homelessness.
Practice self-care: Recognize the personal boundaries you need to set to ensure your longevity in this field. This could mean that you refrain from disclosing any personal information or that you live in a different community from where you work. You cannot be at work all of the time and it is okay to turn off your role as an outreach worker to separate your work life from your personal life.
These are just a few lessons learned from one day of outreach with one PATH provider. Outreach workers in different parts of the country have tips and resources specific to their area and the population they serve. That said, Barbara also reminds us: “We learn as much from our clients as we do our peers.” Outreach workers are constantly learning through these interactions with peers and consumers. Every outreach worker and consumer brings different experiences to the table. No two PATH programs are exactly alike, and no two people who experience homelessness are exactly alike, so every day of outreach is different.
What advice do you have for new outreach workers? Click ‘Add Comment” below to add your tips.
Find out more about how the Massachusetts PATH program at Eliot Community Human Services supports Housing First in Lawrence Massachusetts.
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