Wander: To ramble here and there without any certain course or with no definite object in view; to range about.
“So, what do you do?” asked a former classmate roughly two months after I started my first gig in the homeless service world at age twenty-four. “I wander around downtown and try to be useful to people who sleep outside,” I responded, likely with a shrug of my shoulders and some color in my cheeks. I didn’t know what I was supposed to “do” on a daily basis and was embarrassed partly because I didn’t realize what a common feeling this was both inside and outside of the social service world.
I was the only street outreach worker employed by the city of Nashville, Tennessee. I went off to the alleys, riverfronts, parks, campsites, and homeless service agencies with a backpack, notepad, cigarettes, and a 10-page list of “resources” cobbled together by a stranger who kindly shared it with me. I had no training, no clear ethical framework, no supervision, and no specialized knowledge to guide me. I had zero first-hand experience of being homeless or having a debilitating mental illness. Substance abuse and dependence were more down my alley, but I had not come to terms with my own relationship with alcohol and surely couldn’t impart wisdom on anyone else. I was just there listening, following, and occasionally guiding someone to a free meal, bus pass, pinch of tobacco, condom, rolling paper, laugh, or a handshake. Sometimes these interactions led to an apartment lease or an appointment with a doctor, nurse, or social worker. I knew the end goal was to “get people into housing” – but that was it. I learned as I went.
My days lacked structure. I would wake in the morning, dress for the weather, find a parking spot downtown, and begin walking. I never knew who I would run into or where exactly I was going. I was free to wander, and in that wandering I would encounter people who were very alone and far outside of the “homeless service system” – intentionally or otherwise.
Free to wander, I had time to reflect. I would walk down urine-soaked alleys and ask myself where I would go to the bathroom if I had no place to lay my head and no public restroom within a mile radius (My answer: right there on the exposed brick of a historic building). I thought about how it would feel to be sick with a fever and chills and not to have a warm bed to help me recover. I thought about how it would feel to be “engaged” by a street outreach worker young enough to be my son who knew nothing about me but who wanted “to help.”
I also had time to meet people who lived on the streets and who had never set foot in a shelter. These folks would often have the most severe illnesses and were most in need of support. I offered and received the gift of hospitality only because I had the support to leave my office and head into the elements.
In the homeless service world, there is an emphasis on “prioritization.” In the context of extremely scarce resources, time, and money, there is little choice but to prioritize housing and services to individuals who are identified to be the most vulnerable. When we implement this approach, however, we need to be sure that we are doing our best to include all people who are homeless in the prioritization process. If 100% of our outreach is done in shelters, how do we begin the prioritization process with the woman who sleeps sitting on the sidewalk bench every night? If we don’t do outreach outside shelter walls, she is left out.
If we change our outreach coverage percentages just a little bit – say 85% within shelters and 15% on the streets – we will still not reach everyone, but we will at least expose ourselves to the potential reward that comes with “welcoming the stranger” who seldom appears indoors. And, when we escape from the confines of our buildings, we will not only gain credibility with the people we are trying to serve, but we will also learn more about ourselves and the reason why we do what we do.
Will Connelly is a former outreach worker and currently is Senior Project Associate at Policy Research Associates and the National SOAR TA Center.
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