A public misconception is that solving homelessness is as simple as handing over the keys to an apartment and calling it a day. But when we discuss the most vulnerable in our communities, they are truly that — vulnerable. Experiencing homelessness leaves you vulnerable to the elements, to alienation, and to people making false promises. The need to approach all situations cautiously increases over time and the walls go up.
It’s about survival.
It’s no wonder that outreach workers with the best intentions of helping those living on the streets encounter vulnerable individuals who are highly reluctant to engage. Every interaction becomes part of a long process of slowly growing a relationship and chipping away at the walls that people have built to keep themselves safe. Every step of that process takes careful consideration.
Interested in learning more about the nuances of the homeless outreach process, I shadowed outreach workers from The People Concern in the field over two days: Alex Gittinger & Alex Michel and Glanda Sherman, who was accompanied by Nancy Pierre-Paul, a nurse practitioner from Venice Family Clinic.
“Everyone comes with a story,” Alex G. says to me as we start our day. “It’s important to have empathy.”
One thing is immediately clear: the outreach workers are truly invested in the lives of each individual that they meet. As they venture out into the streets, they are constantly bouncing ideas back and forth of how they can better serve each program participant. Every incoming phone call, and there are many, is met with hopeful enthusiasm that someone is one step further along in the process of becoming housed.
Their trunks are packed to the brim with necessities like water, granola bars, toothbrushes, soaps and socks. Many of the items are donated, but they always need more.
When I sit in the backseat, it is obvious they’re familiar with the routes. They know every curve of the road. There’s no GPS and yet we don’t get lost. But most impressively, they know exactly where to find everyone.
I ask the outreach workers how they communicate and meet with their clients. They all agree that it is a struggle. Between some people often not having consistent access to cell phones (charging is an issue, as is phones being stolen) and some who are constantly on the move, outreach workers modify how they stay in touch dependent on the person. Sometimes texts suffice. Sometimes it’s a matter of getting a tip from one person of where to find another. Most of the time, it’s through sheer observation of patterns of behavior and locations. Observation is crucial. Whether they’re driving, walking, or stopping for a break, the outreach workers keep their eyes peeled for anyone they know or someone new they’ve never seen before.
On my first day of shadowing, we see a man walking south down the coastline. Alex G. made a mental note of his location. Regular appointments are made with program participants by agreements to meet at specific landmarks on specific times and dates. It is essential that the outreach worker follows through exactly as promised.
“Many of our clients have been burned before,” Alex G. says. “Consistency is key because you have to build that trust.”
Our first official stop is at a motel to process paperwork with a man for whom they found temporary housing while he waits for a bed at one of The People Concern’s interim housing sites. He comes outside simply to sign the paperwork, but it’s clear that he and Alex M. have a strong rapport. He gives her clippings of interesting news articles that he found. They chat for quite a while, until he sheepishly asks where we’re headed.
“Malibu,” she says.
He’s headed that way too. Just like that, we’ve picked up a new passenger. On the way, we chat about Lou Reed, David Bowie, and classic rock.
We meet another program participant to perform an assessment at Malibu Country Mart, a plaza lined with high end retail shops. She is eager to distance herself from the idea of homelessness and the stigma surrounding it. She is not as cordial. Alex M. asks Alex G. and I to hang back to keep the situation from seeming too clinical.
I comment later about the level of attention to detail Alex M. has put into this appointment.
“It’s about learning to read people’s reactions. [Something] may seem tiny, but it could be a trigger,” she says.
As I walk along the stretch of beach between the surf and sand with Glanda the following day, there is a man tucked away in the rocks wrapped in his sleeping bag. She tip-toes over cautiously, so as not to startle him, and checks for any movement. She says hello but he waves her away, turning down a bottle of cold water. She explains later that he does not like to be disturbed, so we move on.
The ease Glanda has with starting dialogue with individuals amazes me. Two men are leaning against the wall of a beach café, fixing their bikes. Their possessions are strewn about. I watch as Glanda strikes up a casual conversation with them above the roar of the traffic on Pacific Coast Highway.
“I remember you,” one man says. “You’re Glanda!”
They chat about how his life is going and Glanda reminds him that she can help him with services.
“I’m not there yet,” the man says. “I don’t think I’m ready.”
He is honest with himself. The prospect of change can be overwhelming. Meanwhile, Nancy chats with the other man about an upcoming homeless resource fair. His eyes light up at the offer. It turns out he needs to get his California ID. We leave them with information and care packages which they gratefully accept.
There’s a fine line that outreach workers walk between interacting with individuals as an authority figure, an advocate, and a friendly face. Too much or too little of one over the other and you run the risk of people closing themselves off to you. It takes an outreach worker’s expert observation and keen navigation of interpersonal relationships to open people up to the idea that the right kind of help is out there for them.
The relationships between an outreach worker and client are not one-size-fits-all. Not everyone is at the same point in their journey. Not everyone reacts the same way. Not everyone is ready to trust a helping hand. It’s not easy and it can take years. But The People Concern’s outreach workers will be there every day, breaking down emotional barriers and moving one step closer to another person being housed.
Written by Scarlett Yingvorapant
Photos from Scarlett Yingvorapant