Street outreach

I first got started working with folks experiencing homelessness while I was in college. My classes were teaching me all about poverty, inequality, and privilege. At the same time, my extracurricular education was teaching me about activism and how to make change in the world as one person.

Home on break, I was itching to do something more meaningful than working retail to pay the bills. I learned about an amazing organization in my community and signed up to volunteer.

At the orientation, I realized that these people were putting into action so many of the things I was learning about in school.

My favorite community health professor said, “The key to making change is to meet people where they are.”

This organization was literally doing that – meeting people out on the streets of the community to provide them with food, water, blankets and clothing to ensure they made it through the night.

My professor said, “If you want to help people, you have to build trust and wait until they are ready for help. And then you need to be there.”

I saw that in action night after night after night as volunteers provided necessary items and words of encouragement to people who were having some of the worst days of their lives.

After my return from the Peace Corps, I landed back in this community and immediately wanted to start volunteering again. I was even lucky enough to be hired very part-time, which eventually evolved into a full-time position.

My job was to coordinate volunteers to make and deliver 60-80 meals every single night, 365 nights of the year, to folks on the streets. As a small agency with a shoestring budget, we also had to get donations of all the items we needed to preserve life on the streets – sleeping bags, blankets, coats, gloves, water, etc.

It was a fun challenge, kind of like putting together an elaborate puzzle.

I also personally hit the streets a few evenings a month to work with our clients and deliver food, gear, etc., which was an amazing experience. I learned so much and had so many interesting encounters.

Some things that happened during street outreach shifts:

  • We helped a gentleman jump the battery on the car that he was living in on a sub-zero night in the Walmart parking lot (pictured above);
  • I drove a full SUV of people to the emergency shelter one day just before Christmas while everyone sang along to Christmas music on the radio;
  • We encountered families with children who had just lost their housing and helped get them into temporary shelter for the night;
  • I drained the battery on our own vehicle one frigid night by leaving the lights on while trying to convince a woman living in a tent in an alley to come to the shelter because it was going to be below zero that evening. We had to rely on the kindness of a neighbor to jump our vehicle when we finally left the woman with her tent in the alley;
  • I met a lot of very interesting people and was honored to be let into their lives as we encountered each other month after month for several years.

The stories that follow are written in their honor and are testaments to the human spirit and to the importance of human kindness, which can mean so much.

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