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Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Reaching Out: Q&A with Jeff Clemmons
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Jeff Clemmons, RN has worked on the streets of Seattle, WA for ten years. He is an outreach nurse for the REACH Project, a program of Evergreen Treatment Services and Pike Market Medical Clinic in Seattle. The REACH Project provides intensive and long-term case management, health assessments, nursing case management, and referrals for adults with chronic substance use issues who are homeless.

Q: What are the important lessons you have learned as an outreach nurse?
The number one lesson I have learned is that it is often just about being with people. I pay attention to people and recognize their value. I can give someone my presence and that is the great thing about the REACH Project. I am not under the gun, and I can be with somebody all day if I need to be.

Q: What makes someone a good outreach worker?
It’s about meeting people where they are, accepting people, and not judging them. It’s about recognizing a person’s humanity. There is essentially no difference between me and someone on the street. The root word of compassion comes from the Latin, “to suffer with and to rejoice with.” I want to be a companion to people. I share what I have to give with people and I get back plenty.

Q: How do you define effective outreach?
I meet people’s nursing needs in terms of what practical care I can provide for people on the street. I have been trained in advanced wound care, which is a very portable skill. It’s an engagement tool, and a way I can make a quick difference in someone’s life. Often the overwhelming part is that people want to satisfy the addiction. I knew a guy who had been bitten by a rat in an alley. I wanted to take him to the hospital, but he didn’t want to go.

Q: Could you share an outreach success story with me?
Through small interactions, I got to know a man who came to the Dutch Shisler Sobering Support Center. He was in his late fifties and had been on the street his whole adult life, after being kicked out by his father in the 1960s. His sister lived in Seattle and wouldn’t have anything to do with him. He was very suspicious of people. He came to me one day and showed me a big lump on his tongue. It turned out to be cancer.
He refused treatment and lived in the bushes. I had pain patches that I would change for him. Right before he died, I was able to get him into a motel and connect him with hospice services. We reconnected him with his sister, and she was able to see him in the end.

Q: What do you do for self-care and support after an outreach call?
Some outreach workers really take their work home, but I don’t. I practice contemplative prayer and this is very helpful. The REACH Project case managers are good to talk with because they have been through it with me. We have an annual retreat and this is a good opportunity to talk to other nurses, because there are not many nurses doing this work. In the last couple of years, the Pike Market Clinic has had a group meeting once a week for support, which is a good way to get perspective on what other nurses are doing. Also, once every six weeks we meet with a professional trained in Secondary Trauma and this gives us time to talk about what we’ve experienced. 

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