Among the many ideas and copious insights to come from a community conversation about homelessness, the importance of outreach stands out. Fostering communication between unhoused people and social workers is essential to dealing with the crisis in Clark County.
The Columbian organized a public forum on March 1 to discuss homelessness in our community, bringing together people with expertise on the subject and interested community members. The lessons that emanated from that discussion: It is a complex issue requiring a multipronged approach, and outreach must be part of that approach.
Panelist Courtney Ligman, who had been homeless and now resides in one of Vancouver’s Safe Stay communities, said: “They saved my life … this team of heroes. They kept coming back … if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have had this community, and I wouldn’t have had this support. They were everything that I needed that I didn’t know I needed.”
That reflects the difficulty of helping people get off the streets. Often, there are factors that make those in need resistant to assistance, such as substance-abuse issues or mental-health issues or simply mistrust of governmental systems.
Jamie Spinelli, homeless response coordinator for the city of Vancouver, said: “(Building connections) can take so long because they have been let down by people and systems. There tends to be a lot of burnout and turnover in employees in this field. So you have one case manager one day and then two weeks later, you have a new one and you had no idea this happened … so people lose trust in the system, as well as people who are meant to help.”
Spinelli added: “Sometimes there is that window of opportunity with someone saying ‘OK, I’m ready’ and it’s very, very short — and I don’t have somewhere to take that person immediately. I might have then lost them again for the next month or two years.”
In a follow-up email, Spinelli wrote that the city’s Homeless Assistance & Response Team has four members and “research shows that it takes an average of 17 positive contacts with chronically homeless individuals before they decide/are willing to connect to services.”
Clark County does not have a dedicated outreach team but helps fund the work of local nonprofits. Additional funding for nonprofits is provided by the state of Washington, private foundations and the federal government.
Spinelli said her team makes personal outreach a priority. “They have a very deep understanding of the need for connection, relationship building and consistency,” she wrote.
Discussions about reducing homelessness in Vancouver and surrounding communities often devolve to the most simplistic solutions: “Why doesn’t the city do something? Why don’t those people get a job? They all have addiction or illness.”
The reality is more complex, first requiring an increase in housing availability and affordability. Vancouver taxpayers have contributed to that effort, approving a renewal and expansion of the city’s Affordable Housing Fund and demonstrating the importance of reducing homelessness.
But even if adequate housing is available, it can be difficult to convince clients that help is available or that it can be effective. That is where persistent outreach comes into play, striving to make contact with people when they are open to receiving help.
As with so many aspects of building a community, personal connections are essential to dealing with homelessness.