Street outreach involves moving outside the walls of the agency to engage people experiencing homelessness who may be disconnected and alienated not only from mainstream services and supports, but from the services targeting homeless persons as well. This is incredibly important work designed to help establish supportive relationships, give people advice and support, and hopefully enhance the possibility that they will access necessary services and supports that will help them move off the streets.
Building strong relationships is essential, because there may be legitimate barriers that prevent people from accessing services, including unsatisfying or even problematic experiences of child protection services, homeless shelters or mental health facilities. This work can take time. For many people with addictions issues, with pets, with partners they refuse to part with, or who are underage and fearful of being turned over to child protection authorities, there may be real or perceived barriers to accessing existing services. It may also be the case that the person has simply ‘slipped through the cracks’, and is unaware of the range of services and supports that are out there.
Outreach strategies require the development of an understanding of the individual circumstances and needs of each individual, as well as cultural barriers that may prevent people from accessing either mainstream services or those that target people who experience homelessness (Aboriginal people, for instance). This means a personalized assessment of risk behaviours and circumstances. Through the development of positive relationships, the attainment of the larger goal of helping people access the services and supports they need in order to help them move forward with their lives can be achieved. Outreach that merely helps support people who are living independently but without any shelter may be a necessary and important first step in relationship building, but the overall goal of street outreach should be tied to the larger goal of helping people move off the streets as quickly as possible. In order to achieve this goal, outreach workers need to be familiar with, and have access to, a range of mainstream and community services. Outreach services that are run by an agency whose goal is simply to link the person to that agency, are not seen as effective. Workers need to be seen as doing the work of the sector, and not simply of the agency they work for. This requires a higher degree of interagency collaboration.
There are several key challenges to successful outreach. First, street outreach involves working with visibly homeless youth living on the streets – there needs to be outreach strategies for the invisible homeless, that is, people who are couch surfing or living without shelter in hard to reach and remote places, etc. Second, outreach can be challenging because people being approached are not obliged to talk with or otherwise engage workers, in the way they might have to within the walls of an agency. This means outreach can be slow, and the results can sometimes feel ambiguous. There is some evidence that a ‘stages of change’ approach to conducting outreach is more effective, since the intervention can be tied to a person’s accepted willingness to move forward with their lives. Finally, many people will avoid going to mainstream shelters and day programs for good reasons – they are afraid, they have pets (for company and safety), and staying in shelters may mean disrupting important and close relationships they see as vital to surviving on the streets. These conditions in fact suggest that when possible, the emergency shelter system must demonstrate flexibility when it comes to maintaining important relationships, networks of support and even pets.
In many places in Canada, there is an understanding that outreach is important in order to access hard-to-reach individuals, though it is not always connected to an overt and concerted effort to end homelessness. Key features of youth outreach in the UK and Australia are useful in conceptualizing how to make this link:
- Outreach is not limited to the visibly homeless. An effort should be made to connect with ‘couch surfers’, and to get into institutional settings where people may be housed, but are still ‘at risk’.
- Outreach is often tied to more aggressive efforts to reduce ‘rough sleeping’, as they call it in the UK.
- Rather than a more passive form of engagement, outreach tends to involve ‘intake’ and case management support.
Definition Provided by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.
Tips for Outreach Workers by Outreach Workers
On February 13, 2008, several outreach workers from around the country gathered in Boston to discuss the skills needed for effective outreach. In the course of their discussion, they came up with some tips for other outreach workers. Here they are.
- First and foremost be human. Be yourself. People know whether you are being authentic and genuine.
- Be comfortable outside your comfort zone.
- Don’t tell people “I know what they are going through,” “I understand,” or “I’ve been there.” Even if you have been homeless yourself, everyone’s story is different.
- Shine the flashlight in your face, not theirs—little things make a big difference.
- Wear layers.
- Be responsive, not reactive. Don’t get defensive. Often negative situations have nothing to do with you. Take a few seconds to think before you speak. Reactive is about you; responsive is about the other person.
- If you find yourself going into an emotional or physical place that might trigger you, don’t go there.
- Know the limits of your own skills.
- Remember that dehydration and sunburn are issues in the winter and in the summer.
- Create survival packs to give out. Include ziplock baggies, gloves, hat socks, toiletries, non-perishables, condoms, seasonal items, flashlights that don’t require batteries, and fingernail clippers.
- People often jump to conclusions and diagnoses too quickly. Don’t assume that just because someone is homeless that you know what’s going on with them.
- Give without expecting anything in return.
ORGANIZATION: Homelessness Resource Center (HRC)
PUBLICATION DATE: 2008