“We Don’t Mean to Bother Anyone; We’re Just a Couple of Outreach Workers”
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Outreach workers are the key to PATH services. Neil Greene, an analyst at SAMHSA’s PATH Technical Assistance Center, left the confines of his office to shadow an outreach worker. He learned a lot, furthered his appreciation for outreach work, and finished with a story to tell.
Six months ago I contributed to a series of presentations on PATH eligibility and enrollment. At the time, I was new to SAMHSA’s PATH Technical Assistance Center. Participating in these webcasts made me feel more connected to the work PATH providers regularly perform. Five months later I had the opportunity to shadow an outreach worker. For one day I left my desk, got out into the field, and found new inspiration.
Travelling 30 miles from Boston to Worcester (Massachusetts), I met Averi at a Brazilian café. Averi conducts homelessness outreach for Eliot Community Human Services, a non-profit agency providing support and treatment to vulnerable populations across Massachusetts. For the next five hours I shadowed Averi, asked a lot of questions, and learned quite a bit from her expertise on homelessness and outreach.
Alcohol quickly became the most salient theme of the day. Our first consumer interaction was with a woman sitting outside a soup kitchen on a concrete bench. There was a crowd around her and a bottle of vodka beside her. I learned that this woman frequently needs hospitalization for detoxification, and despite a one-year period of sobriety, she regularly struggles with alcohol. She also has experienced an increase of physical health problems related to her drinking. I sat next to her for a few minutes and she showed me a picture of her 17-year-old daughter whom she recently met for the first time. When Averi signaled it was time to leave, I told the woman I was glad to have met her. In response she said, “Sorry I’m an alcoholic.” Averi hadn’t given up on the woman, she just knew that the woman was not going to engage with her in a meaningful way today.
Moving on, we traveled to a bridge where people have lived temporarily, though mostly in warmer months. Because of the recent rain, the water under the bridge was high and getting underneath was challenging. Averi called out “we don’t mean to bother anyone; we’re just a couple of outreach workers.” Carrying plastic bags containing socks, water, and a flyer describing outreach, we made our way from one side of the bridge, back up and over to the other side. We found no signs of recent habitation. Averi explained that socks are one of the most useful items for people experiencing homelessness. She elaborated that if she saw evidence of someone living under the bridge, she would have left the plastic bag. This small gesture builds relationships; one of her consumers received her plastic bags for years without meeting face-to-face. When they finally met, he said, “Oh you’re the person who’s been bringing all the socks.” I met this person on our next stop.
This gentleman and his wife live in permanent housing. He graciously opened his door and allowed both of us in. I noticed there was a bottle of vodka on the floor. Averi talked with him about his health and trouble he has with falling. While I helped open a window facing the street, Averi opened her notebook and went over a list. For one, she asked about an appointment to submit paperwork for SSI. When she learned they had not attended it, she asked if she could go with them, found a date they all could agree on, and helped them reschedule the appointment. Averi also asked how they were doing with their drinking. She reminded them of the goals they set for themselves and asked if they were planning to see any friends that week. Later, Averi told me that leaving the apartment was difficult for them. Sometimes months go by without them going outside. This impressed upon me how important supportive services are even after permanent housing is established. At least these two had each other.
In between stops at the Salvation Army and City Hall, we drove to the base of a hill in a more isolated area. Averi and I hiked uphill through the trees to an area where people have stayed before. It was an arduous task necessitating careful attention to tree branches that tried to hit our faces. After ten minutes we saw someone standing in the distance. Upon noticing us, he turned around and began walking away. Averi called out “we are a couple of outreach workers and we’re not here to bother you.” The man, dressed in a heavy flannel shirt and jeans, turned around and waited for us to catch up. He told us he has a social worker, and gave a name Averi recognized. He shared that he’d been living there for roughly 8 months and had built his tent from materials others left behind. It was of substantial size and contained a makeshift fireplace, wood, and plenty of water inside. He said he didn’t need any more water, but gladly accepted a pair of socks. On our way out, he shared a shortcut to the road marked by tree branches decorated with empty water jugs. I asked Averi when she had last walked up the hill and if she would go back. She admitted he may have been there before, but she didn’t see him, and yes, she planned to go back.
When asked what she likes best about her job, Averi immediately said meeting new people. She quickly acknowledged that finding a new person is never a good thing and that sometimes people want nothing to do with her. For me, the day was an enlightening experience, but a small snapshot of outreach work. We returned to the Brazilian café, hungry and exhausted. I had a pressed cheese sandwich and got ready to begin the 45 minute drive back to Boston. In just one day I had learned a great deal. I imagined outreach work over a longer period of time, felt inspired, and then was recharged and motivated to continue my own work providing support to outreach workers like Averi.
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