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What Makes an Effective Outreach Worker? Q&A with Doug Becht
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Outreach is a vital bridge to services for people experiencing homelessness. What do we know about best practices for outreach and engagement? Doug Becht shares his thoughts about what makes an effective outreach worker. He is Clinical Services Coordinator at Bronxworks, and has conducted outreach throughout the Bronx, NY.

Join HRC Trainers on April 8, 2010 for a free HRC Webcast on “Effective Street Outreach: Why It's Important, How YOU Can Do It Better!”

Q: What makes an effective outreach worker?

An effective outreach worker is someone who cares deeply about the person he is working with. Here in the Bronx, we have to search for people. People who are experiencing homelessness are not always in plain sight. We must be willing to search thoroughly and to be consistent. An effective outreach worker is persistent and keeps coming back. At Bronxworks (formerly the Citizen’s Advice Bureau) we are successful because we are out there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We always follow through and do what we say we are going to do, and this goes a long way. When a client sees us come back, they know we care.

It is also very important to listen to people. I am not there just to inform them of our services. I am there to listen to what the person needs and to do my best to provide it.

We often have to remove someone from the streets when it gets dangerously cold. Calling 911 is not a good way to create rapport, but when we come back later and the client sees that we come back and sees our persistence, they know we care.

Q: How do you define successful outreach?

Successful outreach means working with someone until he is ready to move into permanent housing. Not every engagement style is appropriate for every individual, so this takes persistence.

Our program is set up so that we have an outreach worker address a person’s immediate needs. Then, a case manager works closely with him to find appropriate housing. We believe in the Housing First model. We work hard to get someone into housing so that we can start addressing mental illness, substance abuse, and all of the complex things that are connected with chronic homelessness.

Q: What changes have you witnessed as an outreach worker?

We have reduced street homelessness by 72 percent in the Bronx since 2005. We have been a part of this neighborhood for over eleven years. Our outreach team has been out there every day since we opened our doors.

As an outreach worker, you form a unique relationship with someone when you check on him at 3 am in the middle of winter. The most important measure is when we see how someone improves once he is able to get into housing. After someone is housed, we stay connected with him for a year.

I live in the Bronx and it feels good to go around the neighborhoods and know that there are fewer people living on the streets. For example, there’s a street corner where I used to see a man panhandling. Now I know he is living safely in an apartment. I always feel good when I pass by that street corner.

Q: Can you share a success story with me?

One person who comes to mind is a veteran who is in his fifties. He had been staying in a park for the last twenty years since he got out of the armed forces. He had a serious alcohol problem, and his hands were mangled. Every time we engaged him, he was reluctant to go anywhere with us. Over time he started to work with us. We were able to take him to an appointment so he could receive his social security income. Eventually, we were able to find him housing with New Era For Veterans, an independent agency that works specifically with veterans. He’s been housed for nearly a year now.

Q: What motivates you to go to work every day?

The people I work with are so genuine and I enjoy working with them. I realized at a young age that money doesn’t buy happiness. Knowing that I am working with a good organization that shares my principles and values keeps me going.

Read a synthesis of the research on best practices for outreach and engagement in a new article published in the HRC Special Issue on “The Future of Homeless Services” in the Open Health Services and Policy Journal.

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