Homeless Outreach in New Orleans
Hello everyone. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Clarence White and I work for UNITY of Greater New Orleans as a member of the Homeless Outreach Team. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series of articles for the website here. I want to share with y’all the real experience down on the streets. When we’re doing outreach, we have to get on their level. We have to meet them on their terms so they can learn to trust us, and trusting people is hard when you’re living on the streets.
We have to meet these folks where they live. Under a the overpass on Claiborne Avenue, at the brightly lit Downtown Library, up behind the old Evrett Williams Building. They stay all over the city, and most of the time, you have got to go to them. And the best time to find them easily is at night. That’s when we take the van out. We always go out in pairs. A lot of the time when we start talking to somebody, other people will walk up and we need to be able to help them too. We try to keep water in the van and sometimes we have some snacks and stuff to hand out too. But we’re not there to give them supplies. We’re there to get them shelter and later hopefully get them housed permanently. We want to get these people patched up back on their feet, safe in their own place to stay.
The process starts with getting face to face with a client. We get their name, get their number (if they have one — a lot of the time they don’t), where they’re staying at that time, how long they’ve been homeless. Once we have that, we can start to get to know them as people. A lot of these folks have had a lot of trauma in their lives. Addict parents, parental abuse, sibling abuse, chronic homelessness, violence, all sorts of things that you wouldn’t wish on anybody. But to really get to know these people, you have to understand their stories. And to get them to tell you their stories, you got to get them to trust you. That means getting on their level out on the street and listening. So much of this job is just listening to people, because they will give you the tools you need to help them. They’re hurt, and when people are hurt sometimes they need someone else to help them out, but when you’re on the street that means you usually don’t have anybody left you can count on.
When you talk to a client, there’s a lot of things you have to consider. You gotta think about your approach — what kind of person are we looking at? Do they look scared? Are they showing signs of mental illness? You have to take all that information into account when you first walk up to them, and they are going to be watching you, too, and listening. That means you have to make sure your tone is right. Some folks just want to talk, some you have to work with a little more, but all of them need a soft hand, and you have to make sure you build that trust. That means that they have to trust your word. When you say you’re going to do something for them, you have to make sure you you’re going to follow through on it. If you have to drive them all over the city to get it done, you have to do that, because if your word doesn’t mean something, that will get around quick. But at the same time, if word gets around that you’re good for what you say, then you’ll have people you don’t even know come up to you knowing your name. They’ll say stuff like “you helped my friend so-and-so get her ID and get into housing and she’s still in there and I think I might want to try that.”
Now once you have seen them a few times, you want to try and catch them in the morning. Usually you have to wake up pretty early for this, because you’re going to want to catch them before they’ve eaten. I’ll bring them some coffee and some breakfast — usually sausage biscuits, or maybe some grits and eggs — and sit with them while they eat and talk to them some more. At this point, I’ll have a good idea of whether or not I’ll need to start putting in place a Crisis Intervention Plan. This is for critical needs — say a client has a mental issue and requires medication in order to function without major behavior episodes, or maybe they have a major health issue that is putting them at major risk. I’ll fast-track a plan to get them in front of a Doctor or Psychiatrist to get them immediate care so we can move on to the next step in the process. This can be really hard because there are clinics all over, but some of them are on waiting lists pretty much all the time. That means you have to call up the other clinics. You’ll check with the one in Algiers, the one in St. Bernard, maybe the one in the East, and you get them the soonest appointment that you can. The Metro Human Service District makes that possible, and they are a huge ally to have in the fight against homelessness. Getting them to that appointment is part of them starting to trust your word. If you’re the person helping them make positive steps in their lives, then that’s something that you can build on. And that trust you are buiding can be the thing that helps someone get into a house or apartment for the first time in years.
This short piece is part one of a series I’m going to be writing for y’all. In the next piece, I’ll tell you more about the process of actually getting these folks housed. I’ll also start to introduce some clients to you using pseudonyms. I’m hoping that over the course of this series, I’ll be able to update you on their progress toward a better life.