What Makes Good Street Outreach in the Era of Coordinated Entry?

Once upon a time, a person curled up like a question mark on the sidewalk resulted in our best guess of what should be done. With coordinated entry come opportunities to use data in different ways to better inform street outreach, and ensure integration with the rest of the homeless service delivery system.

Here are seven pointers to help you along the way:

  1. Street outreach is not an entry level position

Most communities have two groups of people that are amongst those with the highest acuity: persons that have been in shelter for long periods of time, and persons that live outside and do not use shelter or only use shelter on seldom occasions. While it would seem obvious that your most acute persons experiencing homelessness would benefit from your best trained and most experienced personnel, time and again communities see outreach as an entry level position, or something that untrained peers can do. If you want to get highly acute persons integrated into your coordinated entry system, think through the staff you need doing outreach for this to get the desired outcome.

  1. You must balance your priority list with new contacts

Street outreach is planned, strategic, and organized. It is not an activity of driving or walking around aimlessly happening upon homeless persons by chance. In a coordinated entry system, street outreach should know exactly which people they aim to connect with daily, for what purpose, and with a strong housing orientation. Three quarters or more of every shift should be spent with existing contacts and moving the housing process forward. Only about a quarter should be spent with new contacts. As for where the priority list comes from, this is most often determined through a Point in Time Count, or periodic population surveys done once every two or three months. Everyone on the priority list is known by name, acuity level, and location of where most commonly located. Mapping can be helpful, even if it is a simple pin drop on Google Maps. Along the way you will come to distinguish the difference between your anchors (same people in generally the same spot night after night) and your tumbleweeds (people that are genuinely drifting through, or more fluidly using shelters and other resources as well as outreach).

  1. The same tool used for common assessment elsewhere in your community must be used in a mobile manner

There is not one triage or assessment tool used in shelters and housing programs, and a different one used through street outreach. Moreover, street outreach workers either need to have the skills and training to deliver the tool, or else assessment staff need to ride along with street outreach workers several times per week. Trying to have street outreach workers transport people to where an assessment can occur is an unnecessary barrier.

  1. Balance outreach across different times of the day

Some street outreach has to occur during the day because that is when most government services and other service providers and housing providers are operating. However, it is a mistake to do outreach only during the day, as there is insufficient engagement with some of the most street involved and entrenched persons that are undetectable during daytime hours.

Some street outreach has to occur in the evening and nighttime because that is when most people living outside are bunking down or are engaged in nocturnal activities. However, it is a mistake to do outreach only during the evening or night, as there is insufficient connection to activities that can only happen during the day.

Some street outreach has to occur in the early morning hours and around the crack of dawn because that is when most persons that bunked down for the night are rising, and because some of the persons that were incapacitated because of their nocturnal activities are lucid (though perhaps feeling rough).

This does not mean your community has to have three street outreach teams. But it should result in different shifts from week to week to week in order to maximize coverage of times of day to connect with people to ensure maximum impact.

  1. Don’t confuse building rapport with people liking you

Street outreach workers are effective when they build rapport through professional skills and the ability to deliver on what they offer: housing. Street outreach workers do not need to be chummy. They do not need to hand out cigarettes or sandwiches or coffee to engage and be effective. They need to have a clear offer of housing with appropriate follow through. Time and again we have seen it possible for an individual on the street to absolutely despise a street outreach worker and still get housed through their efforts.

  1. Ensure a warm transfer to ongoing supports in housing

In a coordinated entry system the interface between the engagement point (streets) and the resolution of homelessness (housing) is wrought with cracks people can fall through. This is especially true when blind referrals are made (which is about telling people where to go and at which time and hoping it happens rather than actually accompanying people). Part of effective street outreach is ensuring there is a gradual, warm handoff to the longer term housing case manager. Street outreach workers should also visit people in their housing for the first few weeks after move-in to reinforce the transition and provide a support to the work being completed by the individual and the housing case manager.

  1. Never drift away from a Housing First orientation in your approach

Street outreach must focus on getting people off the streets and into housing, without jumping through unnecessary hoops like attending programs, going to treatment, obtaining an income first, taking medications, demonstrating sobriety, or being assessed for housing readiness. Street outreach also needs to focus on ensuring there is movement into housing, not building dependency or enabling people to stay on the street. I am of the opinion that only the most rare of circumstances should survival gear like food, tarps, sleeping bags or the like be shared with persons living outdoors – and in some communities there is no place for this at all.

Street outreach workers, depending on the community, can be critical to a lot of the administrative work required for people to get housing. This can include things like getting identification for the person they are supporting, filling out paperwork for housing providers, collecting verification documentation, etc.

Street outreach workers are getting people to commit to a support program that comes with housing, not a housing program that comes with supports. Street outreach must never lead people to believe that there is an offer of housing only. This ensures that street outreach is effectively supporting the coordination process of ensuring long-term housing success for persons with higher acuity.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

5 Responses to “What Makes Good Street Outreach in the Era of Coordinated Entry?”

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  1. Jeff says:

    Long time reader first time poster here!

    First of all just want to say thank you for bringing ideas like housing first and harm-reduction to light with your posts. To hear someone in your position espousing these positions is fantastic and will, I believe, lead to more effective and non-judgemental services for clients.

    My question to you is this – what about people who prefer to live outside? I’ve shadowed our street outreach team where I work and some people seem to genuinely prefer the freedom of sleeping outside. How do these people fit into your framework for housing?

    Additionally what are your thoughts about tent encampments in cities like Portland?

    Thanks!

  2. Right on, Iain! Refreshing and validating of our approach to outreach. I love your comments on not confusing rapport with people liking you. I have seen way to many well-intended, but enabling souls reinforce illegal and unhealthy behavior with their distribution of food, supplies and tents. Yes, tents. Why would anyone want to come off the streets in a city with temperate climate if everything is handed to them?

    I want to also affirm that street outreach is not an entry level position.It’s also a specialty that requires cross training to make one a generalist that is savvy to understanding the wide spectrum of needs and motivations of people on the street.

  3. While I believe that assessment tools should be uniform between Street Outreach professionals and Supportive Housing programs within a jurisdiction, street outreach professionals should understand that it may be inappropriate to pull out the tool during initial points of contact. Many assessment tools ask probing, personal questions. Outreach professionals know that asking such questions during initial points of contact (or even during the first couple of meetings or dialogue) may create distrust or push persons away by being too intrusive. Additionally, many young persons may not give accurate answers to in-depth questions regarding sexuality, substance use, length of homelessness, or extent of exploitation if asked too soon in a relationship. Outreach professionals must possess skills in knowing when to seek personal information, in order to complete assessment and referral for deeper services, and when to simply continue to engage and build trusting relationships. It’s a tough balancing act.