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Surviving on the streets is difficult, especially when battling severe weather and other emergency situations. Sabrina Edgington, Program and Policy Specialist for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council, discusses a pilot training designed to teach emergency preparedness to those experiencing homelessness and living on the streets. The training focuses on engagement and peer learning.
Surviving Together

Surviving on the streets means developing a host of strategies for protecting oneself from the elements. And Sabrina Edgington, Program and Policy Specialist with the National Health Care for the Homeless Council based out of Nashville, TN, is on a mission to help people experiencing homelessness do just that.

Sabrina says that there are few formal opportunities for people living on the streets to learn how to be prepared for severe weather and weather-related emergencies, even though these individuals are often some of the most vulnerable during these conditions. She notes that Health Care for the Homeless projects (Federally Qualified Health Centers that receive grants to serve people experiencing homelessness) see a lot of weather-related injuries such as heat exhaustion and frostbite, many of which are preventable. It was out of this realization that the idea for a training curriculum aimed directly at this population grew. “Emergency management involves the entire community, including all of those who live there,” she says, “and we weren’t doing it justice by only training the officials behind the scenes.”

“Most of us aren’t prepared for an emergency, but this is information that every one of us can really use,” Sabrina says, adding that people on the streets are often the most marginalized from this information. The goal of this training is to help people who know how to survive on the streets to share those skills with others through peer learning—and for individuals living on the street to actually take safe measures to protect themselves from the elements.

And so far, the results are promising. A pilot training in Seattle, WA, in July 2012 engaged 12 participants from a co-ed shelter targeting individuals living on the street. Sabrina says part of the success of the training came from the effort she put into preparing participants for what to expect. She arrived a day early and distributed booklets about first aid and survival skills, held a “meet and greet” the night before the training to encourage people to attend, and brought emergency weather radios as incentives for participation.

Her efforts paid off—on the day of the training, nearly every person showed up and had read the booklet in advance. Facilitators and participants shared strategies for everything from managing heat and cold to protecting oneself from extreme weather to knowing what to do in an earthquake or flood. Participants discussed their own safety plans for potential situations such as needing to escape from the woods if the weather turns bad, or what to do if they don’t have access to a specific service or place. The dialogue can be tailored to the specific community to ensure that the conversation is relevant and engaging for participants; in Seattle, for instance, facilitators held a discussion about protection from moderate temperatures, which can be deceivingly dangerous for individuals without proper attire.

Sabrina says that rather than being structured as a lesson, the training is modeled like a focus group discussion that elicits the wisdom and insights of the people in the room. “For instance, in Seattle, the facilitator asked participants to share specific things they do to protect themselves in various scenarios,” she says. “But while she asked about specific actions like drinking alcohol, she did not say, ‘Drinking is bad for you.’ [Because of this,] a productive and engaging conversation was able to happen organically around recognizing the impact of alcohol on body temperature.” Participants were highly engaged because they could relate to these scenarios and had stories and lessons to share. For those in the room, it was a reprieve from the traditional lecture-based trainings and allowed participants to do the teaching based on their own survival skills learned through personal experience.

Sabrina cautions that one result of this format is that facilitators must be very careful about monitoring ideas or suggestions from the group that may not actually be safe. “We had to treat that very delicately [in the training],” she says, “and to be very aware of how to correct that information without making the person upset.”

Sabrina says that this is why it is so important to engage skilled and knowledgeable facilitators to lead the training. Her facilitators were able to skillfully direct the conversation in a way that was productive, but still allowed the group to own the dialogue. “If someone became upset, [the facilitators] were able to manage it and understand where the anger was coming from,” she says, “but they were also able to guide participants into discussions of other strategies to stay safe.”

Sabrina says it is equally critical to have public health officials on hand in the training so they can identify any red flags that come up in the conversation and provide additional suggestions or strategies. She specifically recommends engaging public health officials with experience working with special populations or specifically with people experiencing homelessness. For her training, she also made sure to have a series of planning conversations with facilitators before the training took place. This helped to ensure that the training was healthy, useful, and empowering for the participants.

Any homeless service provider can coordinate a training like this for their own agency, says Sabrina. Many emergency planning agencies are very receptive to conducting this type of training and are likely already thinking about how they can serve as many vulnerable populations as possible.

Sabrina says that she learned many lessons from the pilot and that the feedback from participants was very positive. Not only did they find the information helpful in developing their own safety action plans, they also appreciated the bi-directional flow of information during the training. And at the end of the day, says Sabrina, that is what it’s really all about: having those conversations with each other to share knowledge and experiences and ultimately, to live in a safer, more prepared way.

For more information about the training, please contact Sabrina Edgington at or 615-226-2292.

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