Monday morning, about 20 outreach professionals representing eight organizations joined the City’s Navigation Team to conduct comprehensive outreach to those living unsheltered along the Spokane Street corridor from Airport Way to First Avenue South. In addition to the Seattle Police officers and REACH outreach workers who comprise the City’s Navigation Team, participating agencies on site included DESC-HOST, Healthcare for the Homeless, Metropolitan Improvement District (MID), Mary’s Place, Pioneer Human Services, Valley Cities, the Union Gospel Mission and the Salvation Army. Other agencies, such as YouthCare and Veteran’s Affairs, were available in an on-call basis.
Over months of conducting repeated outreach in this area, the Navigation Team has gotten to know many of the individuals living there. During these contacts, the team has identified a number of challenges within this population that present barriers to people moving off the streets, including chronic mental illness, substance use disorder, sex work/trafficking, legal issues, and a lack of employment and housing/shelter. To better serve everyone, the City is teaming with organizations that specialize in meeting those individual needs.
Monday’s collaborative approach saw the workers dividing up into multidisciplinary teams – each with medical support, experts in substance abuse or mental health treatment, general outreach and law enforcement – that deployed at various points along the corridor to ensure every person was engaged and the appropriate resource made available. The team serving the most densely populated section of the corridor also had outreach workers specific to the needs of veterans and families. Each team started by asking everyone three questions: Has anyone engaged with you yet? Are you a veteran? Have you received a coordinated entry housing assessment? Beyond that, the outreach workers used their expertise to work with people to determine their individual situation and needs.
To those interested, service offers were immediate, including substance use recovery options, mental health treatment, coordinated entry housing assessment, relocation to appropriate alternative living arrangements, reconnection with family or other support systems, disruption of ongoing sex trade including exploitation of vulnerable individuals. The City’s field coordinators were also available to offer storage of personal belongings for anyone who accepted a referral to a treatment program or an alternative living arrangement.
All 66 individuals found residing along Spokane Street from Airport Way to Colorado Avenue South were contacted multiple times. While just the beginning of targeted outreach to this area, this effort saw several positive outcomes, including:
– Four people transported to the Georgetown encampment.
– One person transported to the Navigation Center.
– Three individuals placed on shelter/Navigation Center waitlist.
– One veteran connected with outreach toward working on obtaining ID and housing.
– Three females are now working with Mary’s Place toward shelter and housing.
– Four people connected with mental health support services.
– One person connected with case management to work on getting ID.
– Five individuals received medical attention.
– Two individuals were provided with legal assistance.
An Outreach Worker’s Perspective
The City’s outreach coordinator who organized Monday’s effort, Jackie St. Louis, MSC, LMHC, offered the following reflections on this and every day of outreach:
“We’re tired of you guys,” one man said as we arrived at the encampment. I contemplated responding before deciding not to do so. The reality was that we all were. If there is something that outreach workers and homeless individuals have in common, it is that they are well acquainted with the humanness of fatigue.
The location is Spokane Street beneath the viaduct, where 40 social service professionals and police officers have gathered to outreach the community that calls this location home. Many of the workers have been there before and have established relationships with the residents. In spite of the consistent outreach efforts, the majority remain. Some want to stay with their community of friends, others simply are not willing to go to shelters, and others report to wanting to remain outdoors as it is their chosen way of life. And there are also those who want to just be left alone.
Many are ambiguous; uncertain about what they really want and unable to elaborate that conflict in a way that helps the worker to design a plan of action. Nonetheless, this is part and parcel of this kind of work: it’s about coming alongside someone and being there even when there appears to be no coherent plan.
Outreach is persistent work, it requires tough skin, sensitivity to the needs of others and a willingness to brave weariness in the hope that this will be the day when the decision is made to discontinue living outdoors. And so the team prepares: each team member self identifies by specialty. Those competencies include mental health, substance use, medical, case management, family support. These are the resources that will be offered on this day.
People often inquire about the job of an outreach worker. Though hard to elaborate, outreach can be conceptualized as surfing: it is the challenge of maintaining solid footing at the apex of the wave and through the dip that is sure to follow. Outreach is designed to be the entry point into the continuum of care. For many who are engaged by outreach workers, this is their sole means of being connected to the larger service provider network. In addition, the challenges related to navigating a potentially complex service providing ecosystem can at times discourage those who need it most from doing so. Outreach workers are first responders, emotional support partners, case managers, family reconciliation partners and advocates.
Outreach workers conduct persistent engagement with the goal of relocating individuals to living arrangements that are safer and more supportive than being unhoused or in an encampment. This is an intricate process that can span from a day to years. Outreach workers are often challenged with having to balance their desire to consistently engage from a person-centered perspective with the external pressures that arise from the realities associated with encampments such as trash buildup and public safety concerns. Outreach is rarely a linear process, and the occasions when people readily and immediately accept alternative living options are few.
It would be safe to say that outreach is the process of knowing that you’re going to fail more than you have success, but choose to believe that those whom you serve make it worth confronting those challenges while maintaining the hope that together you will beat those odds.