The answer is 232. At least it is for Coleman. It’s the question I get every time I present at conferences about outreach: “How do you get people into housing who have been on the street for years, even decades, who just don’t want to go in?”
I’ve been seeing Coleman every week for the last four and a half years. Sometimes I saw him once a week and sometimes more. He would have been homeless 35 years come this spring. After having an initial psychiatric break at age 19, Coleman made his bed under several bridges, a cubby by the Superdome, behind a dumpster next to the post-office and various other places off the public radar.
He’s in my Tenacious Ten, the Hardest to House; Special Projects Division. They’re not necessarily the sickest, just the hardest to move off the street. It’s the list of the people so entrenched in their homelessness that housing becomes an afterthought. These particular individuals’ first step into housing involves crossing a river a mile wide, filled with bulimic sharks and punctured with Class V rapids.
At 11:30 PM, Tuesday night we pulled our dingy van under a darkened bridge. The new million dollar LED lights of the Superdome casting a warm and ever changing glow in the background, me and Coleman had our weekly huddle. After exchanging pleasantries, Coleman told me he was ready.
“Ready for what?” I asked.
“I’m ready to go in,” he said.
Attempting my best to stay cool, I smiled and let him know I’d be back. He was serious.
My girlfriend later asked if I pissed my pants when he said that. While my bladder remained intact, my heart has been racing since Tuesday, a little before the stroke of midnight. Something like this is akin to the Super Bowl for outreach workers. Be cool. Play your game. Know this is your moment. You worked damn hard for this. Enjoy it. It’s why you spent 232 nights talking to the same guy under the same musty underpass. Late, cold and lonely nights. Game on.
After a quick turnaround, our Housing Specialist extraordinaire Earl located him an apartment. It was inspected the next day and at 6 PM yesterday Travers and I picked Mr. Coleman up for the first time ever. He got his keys to his place: central A/C, washer/dryer, his own toilet, refrigerator, a shower, a door that locks, etc.
It was all done in less than 36 hours. So the simple math is: 12,775 days of homelessness, 232 outreach contacts, 36 hours from street to keys, 1 apartment and the rest of Colman’s life in housing.
Side Note: It’s now the Notorious 9!