Reaching Out with Outreach Grid: A Week with Street Outreach Workers in the City of San Antonio, Texas [Part One]
In May 2019, Outreach Grid was selected by the City of San Antonio’s Department of Human Services to take part in the CivTechSA Residency, a 16-week residency co-hosted by Geekdom to assist the department in providing tools for street outreach workers.
To learn more about the state of homelessness in San Antonio and cater Outreach Grid’s tools to the community’s unique challenges, I made a visit to the Alamo City to shadow outreach workers from June 20 to June 25. With the generous aid and time of the City of San Antonio, I had the opportunity to understand not just the structures of information collection and communication but also how they do it empathetically. This blog series chronicles my experiences in the field with our San Antonio partners.
Day 1: Information Architecture
To combat the rising occurrence of encampments in the city, the City has partnered with many local nonprofits and service agencies. These partners include street medicine providers, behavioral health specialists, youth and LGBTQ+ advocates, social services organizations, and local law enforcement.
My visit began with a small forum with outreach workers from the City and these various partners. A total of eight organizations and their outreach teams came together to discuss the key to ending homelessness: how to foster interagency collaboration. We kicked off the meeting by reviewing their current structures of information collection and communication: examining the tools they currently use in the field, the type of information and data they currently collect about homelessness in San Antonio and those who are experiencing homelessness, and how that information is communicated to each other.
Day 2: In-Field Experience (Handling Refusal of Services)
The following day, I had the opportunity to do outreach with a COSA partner, Centro San Antonio — a program that provides assistance to downtown visitors, conducts beautification projects downtown, and assists those who are experiencing homelessness in the streets of downtown. My guides from Centro SA, Valerie and Elizabeth, took me out to Travis Park, a downtown hotspot for many clients.
I saw in real-time how referrals are made and how refusals are handled:
- Valerie had received a call about an individual there who had previously refused services. Valerie was hoping that with the help of Elizabeth that she might reconsider seeking help from Haven.
- We found the individual at the south end of Travis Park, across from the St. Anthony Hotel. Valerie informed me that many local businesses including St. Anthony often refer Centro and Haven to clients in the park.
- Valerie approached the woman first, introducing Elizabeth, before joining me a distance away down the block. She seemed to open up a little to Elizabeth — Valerie noted that this is the longest amount of time that she had spoken to an outreach worker, as she usually declines their advances.
- When Elizabeth re-joined us, we learned that she still wasn’t ready to seek assistance.
I learned that this refusal of assistance happens often. They take it in stride: meeting individuals where they are at and waiting until they are ready. I ask Valerie if she had an idea of how many times a client might refuse services before seeking help. She says that that is something that they haven’t measured, but does note that, while each client is different, it does take several encounters for most clients to begin the pathway towards shelter and housing.
Friday evening closed on a hopeful and inspiring note: I had the opportunity to visit the Haven campus on the “Members” side. Haven partners with the Center for Health Care Services to provide a program for members known as “ITP” or the Integrated Treatment Program. Frequently, the program invites speakers who have exited the program to tell their stories about their recovery and life during and after Haven for Hope. The speaker’s story was inspirational — embodying for us the success and goal that Outreach Grid and the City and its partners are working toward in the fight to end homelessness.
Day 3: In-Field experience (Silos of Information)
Saturday afternoon, I shadowed Krista and Heidi, two public school teachers who volunteer on the weekends with Stand Up for Kids, a nonprofit organization working to ending the cycle of youth homelessness here in San Antonio. I met Krista and Heidi at a local library branch to conduct a inreach. On the weekends, they bring supplies, including food packs, hygiene kits, and bus passes to give to homeless youths (particularly those aged 18–25). Over two hours, fourteen young adults came by to visit the two women — some of them stopping to give hugs or update the volunteers on their new jobs or housing prospects, and some stopped by just to say hi and get a snack.
At times, Heidi might make a note of a youth’s name if she knew it, though, for the most part, both volunteers focused their encounters on listening and engaging with their visitors. I asked if there was a place where they marked their encounters or store any information about their visitors. At the end of the afternoon, they shared with me a Google form that they sometimes use to note an individual’s
- whether they’ve encountered the client at the library for outreach or at other locations
but that this information may not be available for other outreach teams and they have no way of knowing if any other teams follow up with their clients.
My day with Heidi and Krista may have ended here, but this was only the start of my journey to understand the issue of homelessness in San Antonio. You can read more about my experiences with the city and and its partners in the next installment of Reaching Out with Outreach Grid!
These in-field experiences are invaluable for us to build tools empathetically and to configure a Network successfully. Let us visit your community by signing up at outreachgrid.com!