As an intern with the Home For Good team at United Way, I have been tasked with helping to develop a coordinated outreach system for Los Angeles County. What does coordinated outreach mean? Coordinated outreach means that EVERY community in Los Angeles County will have service providers that can reach out to and connect homeless individuals to supportive services and housing.
I moved to Los Angeles about 1 year ago, and have since begun to learn about homelessness throughout the County. At first I felt a little overwhelmed by the extent of the problem; I am originally from Arizona where homelessness is not nearly as big of a issue as it is in Los Angeles. In order to get a firm grasp on homeless outreach, I spent countless hours researching and reading literature on homelessness and outreach models. As is the case with most research, I eventually hit a wall and found that I needed to get out in the field and experience homeless outreach firsthand. I heard great things about a group called PATH (People Assisting The Homeless), so I contacted the staff at PATH and set up a day to accompany them in their outreach efforts.
Outreach day came and I had no idea what to expect. The weather looked gloomy and threatened rain, I didn’t know if we would be walking for miles; I didn’t know how many people would be part of the outreach team, or what my role would be- what would I say to the homeless individuals? I felt that anything I did say would fall flat because, no matter how much homelessness tugs at my heartstrings, I cannot imagine what it is like to struggle to survive on the harsh streets of Los Angeles.
I arrived at PATH’s Hollywood center bright and early at 7:30 am. There I met Robert and Tyler who would be showing me the ropes for the day. I was able to glean from our initial conversation that we would be driving around the city of West Hollywood. Once out in the field, our first stop was Plummer Park.
When we arrived at Plummer Park we began by walking around looking for people to talk to. We found a few homeless individuals in the back corner of the park and asked them if they would like one of the sack lunches we had with us. I hung back and Robert and Tyler took the lead because I had no idea what to say, and was honestly a little intimidated by the situation. I quickly learned that all you had to do was talk- just asking people how they were doing and what was going on in their lives seemed to brighten their day. After talking to the people in the park, we got back in the van and drove around West Hollywood. Whenever we saw a homeless individual we pulled over and talked to them.
We did outreach for about 5 hours- finding people and talking to them. Each time we went back to the car we wrote down information to make follow up easier. We noted any problems they might be facing, including whether they had gotten tested for TB so they could be put on a shelter’s waitlist. It was a rewarding experience to see what outreach was like firsthand. One can spend countless hours researching what successful outreach might look like yet some things, like how to navigate interactions with homeless individuals, can only be learned through experience.
My day with PATH taught me that outreach takes an understanding of the basic human experience – recognizing the fundamental humanity of an individual, regardless of mental health issues, substance abuse problems, or torn and worn out clothing. Successful outreach takes a sympathetic heart and ear without judgment. Outreach teams understand that the system has failed those that are living on the streets and that together we must work to improve the resources available and make the necessary connections to help these individuals get off of the streets. Comprehensive county wide outreach will assure that we see all of our homeless neighbors as individuals; that we know them by face and by name, not just as a statistic. It will help communicate that there is hope and that they are worth our consideration- they are our neighbors and fellow human beings.
Erica is currently studying Public Policy at the University of California Los Angeles. As an intern at United Way of Greater Los Angeles, Erica will be working on creating a county-wide outreach system.