Archive for September, 2015

When I left my job as a street outreach worker at a center for homeless youth, I was just beginning to learn what it means to work with people who are experiencing crisis situations—what it means to be “in crisis.” Next week I’ll return to street outreach for the first time in almost two years. As a refresher, I’m digging up resources on the internet, including the PATH videos (produced by the Department of Health and Human Services), which aren’t perfect, but help me get back into the right frame of mind. And I’ve been working on this list:

  • Though someone may be having a tough time, other people don’t necessarily know what’s best for him.
  • Sometimes or a lot of the time you might not know what to do or say. There won’t really be a right thing. It’s more important to listen and offer support.
  • Adapt to the situation and the person you’re talking with. At the same time, don’t be too passive. If you’re uncomfortable with something, be honest. But remember you’re a guest in someone else’s space. Follow her lead.
  • If someone’s breathing fast, breathe slow. If someone’s talking loudly, talk softly.
  • We’re more than the worst thing we’ve ever done (Bryan Stevenson TED Talk).
  • Don’t go in with an agenda, or with the expectation that people will open up to you right away or ever. Don’t try to change people. Only see if there is a way to help. Sometimes the best way to help is to step back.
  • Let people approach you.
  • Homeless people are forced to occupy public spaces, but their lives are private. Treat people with dignity and respect and actually think about what those words mean.
  • Occasionally people will try to rattle you. They want to see how you’ll hold yourself, if you’ll talk down to them, if you fluster easily, if you think too highly of yourself, if you’re full of shit. Stay relaxed. Don’t be defensive. Be assertive. Set boundaries. Carry yourself with humility.
  • Expect the occasional threat. Expect that most people who live on the street carry weapons, because they have to. Be alert, but not closed off to people. You can’t help people if you’re afraid of them.
  • Don’t pity people. Don’t look down on them. Don’t assume anything. Know that most of us are closer to homelessness than we believe, that any person who lacks support at a critical moment is at risk for losing everything. Young people who have run away from their homes and stayed away have done so because their lives were unbearable or because their families threw them out. Many people you encounter on the street can’t access shelter because of PTSD or addiction problems. Many may suffer from severe mental illnesses—the cause of their homelessness or a result of it. People may be hungry and exhausted and sick. You’ll also meet people with violent criminal backgrounds, who have often been victims of violence themselves. You’ll meet pimps and pushers. It’s not your job to understand, and certainly not to condemn. It’s your job to identify immediate needs and try to meet them. No one should go hungry, and no one’s story is over yet. As you develop relationships with people, however, it is your job to try to protect vulnerable people from those who aim to take advantage of them or harm them.
  • Give the person you are talking with your full attention, but make sure you know what’s happening around you. This takes practice, and there’s never a perfect balance—do your best. Listen for changes in tone; watch for sudden shifts in activity. Know where your partner is. Keep an eye on the nearest way to safety and make sure it’s not being blocked.
  • Remember that getting to know people and respecting their space contributes to a safe environment better than anything else.
  • Move with extra care around places where people sleep. Announce your presence.
  • Remember, everyone is always watching. People who have been in survival mode for a long time are really good at reading signals that others are not, so make sure you’re aware of your body language and remember you can’t hide anything.
  • Take responsibility for your mistakes.
  • Listen. Don’t interrupt. Don’t offer advice unless it’s asked for. People are often their own best teachers and know what they need better than you do. Your job is to help them guide themselves.
  • Learn to build within a city of doubt (John Maeda’s words on the nature of creativity).
  • Most days the need will seem overwhelming. If you know people long enough, you’ll begin to see cycles come to an end only to begin all over again. Some people will disappear or will die. Some will get clean, then become addicted again. You’ll become close to people. You’ll lose people. It’s your job to see pain and acknowledge it, and to be a constant, stable force and advocate—know that even if that’s all you can do, that it’s necessary.
  • People are stronger and better than they know.
  • If someone reaches out to you, make sure you act immediately and follow through. Don’t make empty promises. Celebrate small victories.
  • Keep records to remember who you’ve encountered and where so you can check in with them later, and for reporting purposes. Protect your clients’ identities.
  • Nonprofits don’t always offer the best ways to help people. You’re not giving up on people if you have to leave a program that doesn’t work. Find something that works.

“You meet [people] where they are,” says an outreach worker in one of the PATH videos, “geographically, philosophically, emotionally—you meet people where they are and walk with them for a little while on their journey.”

You can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be another person. But all most of us are trying to do is find out what it means to be ourselves and have the experiences we’ve had and find a way to come to terms with these things and maybe discover another way to be, and to belong to a community. I’m excited to be returning to outreach. It’s an honor to walk beside another person, to bear witness, and move into the unknown together.


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