Homeless Outreach during a Pandemic

Work Setting: Community Based Non-Profit

Tyler Schueffner

Just thought I would share a few details of being an outreach coordinator during COVID-19 pandemic. Street and community based outreach requires you to be flexible and skillful when reacting to things that may seem like they are out of control… this has never been more true than during the pandemic. Our professional goals are to engage and provide case management services to those lacking stable housing. During this time, the stability of housing, family dynamics, mental health, substance use, and social systems is being severely tested.

In this post, I thought I would share what the early challenges have been and what the steps we have taken.

First things first. How do you keep you and your staff safe. It’s extremely easy to fall into the hero role, and want to assume that we can manage COVID-19 without worrying about our own health… but honestly, that’s the ego and not our rational mind pulling the strings. We social work types often struggle with this. Assessing how effective you, your staff, and the program will be if health is compromised, must be a top priority. In our case some team members have health conditions that put them at high risk if infected with COVID-19. Being pro-active and making a decision early about working remotely was vital to sustaining the work. My staff is much more efficient and effective when they are safe and healthy. They were able to inform clients and other service providers quickly before everyone else was reacting to the closing of schools, business, and agencies. It also helped that we have been using social media as a platform long before COVID-19 began. Our staff and clients are comfortable communicating using messenger, Facebook, etc. Our outreach has been transitioning to social media outreach for years, as more and more people use it as a means of communication. So step one was to be pro-active and ensure the safety of those vital to helping over the long haul, and leverage what we already have in place.

Second, managing the endless stream of information. This has been the hardest part of the response. As a non-profit, each funding source and or government entity may have a different opinions about how services should continue or operate. Those sources will also want to share every update as they come down the pipeline. What this means for direct service providers. Much of your time will be spent reading emails and responding to questions from funding sources, and less time will be spent checking on the well being of clients. My suggestion. Find the person, who is efficient and effective at reading, comprehending, and responding to questions freeing up staff to maintain the work. Not everyone is effective at weeding out information and being able to apply it on the fly. With COVID-19, recommendations change daily and cannot be implemented that quickly. This should be handled by a person in a position of leadership, who also has the best interest of the staff in mind. Funding sources and government also suffers from the ego centered responses, and will make requests that are not always in the best interest of those doing the work. This is when assertive leadership must be able to listen and push back to impulsive decision making. Few are experts in pandemic response, and overreaction is easy. My personal approach has been to try and slow down, block the noise (that is the media… including social media). Identify the things you can control, be mindful of the clients needs, while maintaining safety. In my experience clients will take cues from their support systems, including case workers. If we articulate our need for personal safety (verbal and non-verbal), they may pick up on those cues and begin to put some of them into practice themselves. I would categorize this as another safety planning tool. We are trying to provide a service (which often looks like an exchange of things), but more often than not we are modeling and bringing awareness through our words and personal actions.

Third point… very quickly. Free up the direct service staff to be available to clients. Have them do simple things like text check-ins, provide validations and encouragement to the struggles of the client. Some times we fixate on the “outcomes” which are driven by tangible data points. But how do you measure the things like personal value? How do you measure when someone feels seen? How can we gauge when a person feels like they are cared about? These are the opportunities we have as social service providers.

Final point for this post. Seeing the opportunities in difficult situations. In my 20 years of working with youth and young adults, I can’t recall a time when community was stronger. Community members were paying more attention to those living in the margins. Efforts began immediately to provide resources and services that were not always rooted in financial support but in kindness, generosity, and empathy. This is the hope we can have during times of struggle. Humans are still human even though attitudes and behaviors of decency have been warped by technology and social media. Under all of that messiness, we are loving creatures. This has been an epic struggle, and day by day we move forward, learning, growing, and regaining some of what has been lost… but only if we allow ourselves to slow down and pay attention to the things that matter.

I hope this find you safe and healthy. And one last point… this whole ordeal is an epic test of boundaries. Be mindful of this, your work is an extension of yourself, it is not the whole!