What Does It Mean To Be A Street Outreach Worker?

What Does It Mean To Be A Street Outreach Worker?

Robert is an outreach worker at People Assisting the Homeless (PATH). He began working with PATH through the faith-based internship program DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach & Reflection) in August 2010, after graduating from North Carolina State University with a degree in Aerospace Engineering.

1. What did you think your role as an outreach worker was when you first started? Has that changed?

When I began doing street outreach, I thought of my role as a bridge – a constant presence in the community connecting individuals experiencing homelessness with the services and programs offered by PATH. Our goal was to be present and accessible to the homeless individuals living in the communities in which we worked, while focusing on moving people into one of our three housing facilities.

As time has passed, the nature of the work and my perspective on my role has evolved. What hasn’t changed is that the team still shows up every day and offers opportunities for positive change. We still know the names and faces of people living on the streets in our communities, and remain intimately aware of their personal struggles. What’s different is that now we are often able to offer people a clear, customized path to permanent housing, sometimes skipping emergency and transitional programs entirely. This allows us to create plans that are tailored to each client’s specific needs, as the communal, rule-focused nature of shelter environments can sometimes act as a barrier to people suffering from severe mental illness.

The way I view my job has also expanded. I still see myself as a bridge for people suffering homelessness, but now I am a bridge for other members of the community, too.

The outreach team’s constant presence and regular interaction with businesses, government, and other providers allows us the opportunity to talk about our work. We’re able to raise awareness about homelessness and promote strategies to end it. We are the face of social services in our community, and people notice the respect that we offer our clients. This often shifts their perspectives on how homelessness should be viewed.

The power of these relationships should not be underestimated. Through my work with people in need, I have changed as an outreach worker and I have seen the transformation of communities as they engage with us to address homelessness at a local level.

2. Of all the clients you’ve worked with, are there any that have greatly impacted your outreach work?

The first client I helped transition from the streets to permanent housing was a young man in his mid-20’s living in a local park. He had spent his late teens as a professional athlete, until several serious mental health disorders and the lingering trauma of sexual abuse in his youth caught up with him.

It was a privilege to watch him grow and heal.  We helped him access mental health treatment and apply for disability benefits while we worked with him to apply for a permanent housing subsidy. Eventually, his talk turned from suicide to the things he wanted to do with his life.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw him perform complicated skateboard tricks for a group of cheering schoolchildren. Afterwards, he admitted it was the first time he had performed in over two years.

In a few weeks, this young man will celebrate one year of living in his own apartment. He spent more than two years on the streets and had given up on finding help, largely because he was unable to cope in shelter and drop-in center environments. Without regular, consistent, and compassionate outreach, this man may well have died on our streets.

3. Moving someone from the street to housing is often a long and difficult process. What changes in that process would make your job easier?

Transformational experiences aren’t always easy. Many barriers to housing people living on the streets persist. The biggest challenge is simply the lack of appropriate, affordable housing. Finding a vacancy in a permanent supportive housing project, or locating other affordable housing opportunities, can be difficult at best.  There have been modest improvements in the last year, but long periods of time are spent navigating bureaucracies. This causes clients to get discouraged, lose touch, or, worst of all, die.

Obtaining money for security deposits is another significant barrier. It is difficult for clients to save money while on the streets, because any money they have is spent on survival. We could be much more effective if more funds existed for this purpose.

4. What superhero are you channeling when you are doing outreach?

I have to choose Mr. Fantastic – leader of the Fantastic Four. In addition to maintaining superhero-level good looks, Mr. Fantastic is known for his laser-like focus and the ability to stretch his body into any shape. Like Mr. Fantastic, those of us who do outreach often have to stretch ourselves around barriers or into gaps that no one else fills. We have to be flexible in our approach and in our daily work because we never know what to expect.

Despite fighting numerous super villains, including the notorious planet-devouring Galactus, Mr. Fantastic retains his flexibility, patience, and ability to visualize numerous solutions to a problem. There are few better examples of what it takes to execute successful outreach.



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