I dress in the dark. The Tuesday/Thursday attire has to be inconspicuous, warm, and practical. Usually I opt for a flannel, jeans, and boots, but as winter has set in, additional gear is a must. I am as quiet as the loudest creaking floorboard. Heather, my roommate, rolls in her sleep in unconscious protest of my early departure. Though I realize the necessity of morning outreach work, this protest is mutual.
When I interviewed at Columbus House, a homeless shelter in New Haven, Connecticut, my manager described what my role would be on the Outreach & Engagement team. I would be going out with a team twice a week in the morning or evening to engage with the homeless. Hearing this, I was thrilled. As a suburban girl, I ached for adventure. But with adventure comes discomfort. When I started my job, I had no idea what I was doing. With no background in social work, I felt underqualified, ignorant, and helpless. I started “outreaching” on Tuesday and Thursday morning from about 7 AM to 9 AM. Kayla, my coworker, friend, and former Saint Hilda’s House member picks me up at 6:50 AM and we drive to Columbus House to transfer to the company’s van, pick up our business cards, potentially grab a little coffee at the diner next door, and collect some First Contact Forms. Then we go into the community to begin outreach.
People frequently ask me what I do and for a while, I could read off the job description I was given on my first day of orientation, but that was the only explanation I could give. The Outreach and Engagement team works with individuals, who are at least 18 years of age, are currently homeless or could become homeless soon, and have mental health or substance abuse issues. However, at the time, I still did not grasp how my role as a case manager functioned while working with actual clients. Within the last month, after adding more individuals to my caseload, I have learned how the homeless verification process is completed and how to best assist my clients.
The homeless verification process is a tedious, frustrating, and seemingly impossible procedure. In order to qualify for permanent supportive housing through Columbus House or a similar program in the community, one has to turn in a homeless verification form that confirms a year of homelessness or 4 episodes of homelessness (14 consecutive days) in the last 3 years. This seems straightforward enough, but clients also need disability verification which is two forms that are completed by a clinician reporting a mental health condition or substance abuse issues that the client has. Many clients lack birth certificates, IDs, and social security cards, making it difficult to even begin this verification process. Confirming that someone is homeless is also a challenge because this verification must come from a working professional and cannot come from a friend or family member. Many of the Outreach and Engagement clients are isolated from society and do not have a doctor, a social worker, or a clinician that can provide them with this type of verification. Even if they have been homeless for over a year, without verification of where they are sleeping in the community, they cannot qualify for housing.
Because this process is complicated and because many clients live day to day only focused on basic survival, the Outreach and Engagement team at Columbus House is important. Why Outreach? Many of our clients are unlikely to reach out to Columbus House without a little bit of coaxing and understandably so. I have spoken to members of the homeless community who have been raped, attacked, shot, and deceived. These individuals are usually in hard to reach places. They are living in encampments in the woods, under bridges, and in cardboard boxes. They are sometimes surrounded by mountains of abandoned shoes, clothing, bottles, and forgotten memories. By having Outreach teams in the community as frequently as possibly, we are building up rapport with our clients and slowly gaining their trust. We hope to eventually work towards finding each individual a stable place to live, a manageable healthcare plan, and a potential job.
When I initially started my position, I was terrified. I was constantly asking my coworkers whether I was filling out certain forms correctly and I longed for more structure in my day. However, I learn best by doing and feel empowered by the responsibility I have been given at Columbus House. I like being busy. My coworkers recognize my strengths and trust I can manage stressful situations as well as multitask. I appreciate feeling valued and have enjoyed figuring out certain aspects of the case manager role on my own. Columbus House has over 150 employers, 16 different buildings, and a whole lot of heart. I am grateful that I am part of an uplifting and supportive community.
As I entered the soup kitchen, I was greeted with a few hellos and recognized many faces. After working at Columbus House for about 3 months, I have become familiar with the homeless community. I was specifically greeted by a man who has been homeless for over 15 years. After acquiring the necessary paperwork, I was able to connect him to a program and he will soon be housed. The man left momentarily and returned with two cups of coffee, remembering that I drink mine without cream or sugar. We shared a smile and I knew how much it meant to him to give me that cup of coffee. My clients may have few material possessions, but they are humble, kind, hardworking, and willing to help when they are able.
A small cup of coffee, a few laughs, and a warm place to call his own.
This is why I outreach.