Recently in a community I had a well-established street outreach provider ask me how they can help explain their importance now that coordinated access was taking shape in the city. It seems that with the infrastructure of coordinated access taking root, the street outreach provider was facing questions from its primary funder of whether it should continue to exist.
The short answer is that yes, I think that street outreach should exist in a city that has coordinated access.
Now a longer answer…
Street outreach has merit as a service when it is connecting people to long-term solutions to her/his homelessness. Street outreach, in my opinion, has little merit if it just about providing food or socks or clothing or sleeping bags or prayer. Yes, those things can meet immediate needs, but it doesn’t solve the problem of having someone sleep outdoors, in whatever location they may be in. So, I think street outreach should continue to be funded in communities with coordinated access if there is a housing-focus to the street outreach.
To use an analogy that seemed to work well in a training I recently did with an outreach provider, street outreach is to coordinated access as fluffers are to the adult film industry. Yes, the (ahem) “money shot” (housing in the case of coordinated access) is the conclusion that is remembered, but it was only made possible because of everything that occurred behind the scenes up to that point that no one ever sees. The things street outreach workers see and experience day in and day out as they work with a person in getting them a step closer to being housed is beyond the imagination of many people.
Street outreach provides an important access point into the homeless service delivery system for those people that do not use shelters or cannot use shelters because they are barred/trespassed or have legal restrictions that prevent them from using the shelters. In some communities street outreach is the only access point to housing for people that use substances but there are no shelters that allow people to enter if they have been using substances.
When street outreach has a positive connection with police and paramedics and can respond to issues that are deemed to be a “social disorder” there is also considerable benefit in having them in the community. Skilled street outreach workers can deal with complex social situations that are not really an emergency warranting police or ambulance, thereby freeing up first responders to attend to other emergencies, while concurrently helping that individual start to get connected to the long-term solution to their homelessness and even connect into shelter if the person is willing to go (which can be made easier if the community is coordinated shelter access as well as coordinated access to housing).
Finally, let me leave you with this thought – because visible homelessness is most often what the general public sees and therefore how it judges a community’s response to homelessness (rightly or wrongly), I think it would be foolish to remove funding from a street outreach provider that is doing high-quality work because there is coordinated access. The general public cannot see nor can it easily understand coordinated access. What the general public can see is street outreach workers engaged with its most vulnerable people laying on street corners and camped out in parks.