Sandoval: Creating connections to change lives
A PATH outreach specialist meets with an individual to collect information for their housing assessment. Photo courtesy of PATH.

Homelessness can be extremely isolating and people experiencing it are commonly disconnected from family, friends and support systems. Their primary way of communicating may be just a sign that states an immediate need—Hungry! Cold! Anything helps! They may rest on the sidewalk or sleep somewhere out of sight from the public. Days may pass without seeing or interacting with another person.

When people are disconnected—from support systems, accessible health care and financial resources— they have few options to stabilize their lives when their housing is in jeopardy. Once homeless, isolation perpetuates the problem and widens the gap to accessing much-needed resources. Living outdoors with the trauma of losing your home tends to crystalize that sense of disconnection. That need for connection doesn’t diminish, so people find new networks, adopt new lifestyles and many grow distrusting of the public who want to help, but may not know how.

But thanks to San Jose community partners, PATH has a team of dedicated street outreach specialists to connect people to services and housing. Our outreach team finds people who are experiencing homelessness and immediately begin creating connections. They bring intensive case management services directly to them.

Our teams start by building trust and rapport where there may be hesitancy. They do this through consistently following through on their commitments to individuals—we are sure to show up when we say we’ll show up with a meal and a hygiene kit. We deliver essentials for survival—food, water, hygiene kits and connection.

During the pandemic, we all learned new definitions of essential and our outreach teams adjusted to provide what was needed in real-time. Our teams delivered meals when food banks were closed. We handed out more hygiene kits than ever before; our outreach specialists were able to distribute 200 kits every week. These kits, which now include personal protective equipment, are essential tools of engagement which allow people to bathe, tend to their hygiene, maintain their dental health and preserve their dignity.

Our outreach teams are dedicated to honoring the dignity and self-worth of every person we serve, and handing out these essentials is just the first step on a person’s path to housing. Each individual’s path to housing is as unique as the circumstances that led to their episode of homelessness. It takes time to build trust and get to know people, but in that time we learn to understand their specific needs.

One person may not qualify for an apartment because they don’t have their essential identifying documents, they have poor credit or don’t have enough savings for a security deposit. Our team of case managers can cater a service plan to assist with transportation to the DMV, fee waivers for essential documents, resources for one-time financial assistance and referrals to credit repair services. We offer the ongoing coaching, guidance and support it takes to successfully navigate complex social service systems and advocate until their needs are met.

Our teams are skilled in bridging relationships into permanent homes. In our last performance year, even during the pandemic, our staff served 519 people experiencing homelessness in San Jose.

PATH outreach specialists linked 176 people to emergency housing placements, such as shelter, bridge housing and emergency motel stays so they had a safe place to stay while waiting to find housing. My favorite success to highlight: our team helped 166 people move off the streets and into their permanent, forever homes.

Despite the numerous challenges of the pandemic, our essential workers were still able to end homelessness for hundreds of people last year. And still, I know the local homeless crisis far exceeds what our small team of outreach specialists can accomplish alone. Which is why we know that we are just one component of a larger community network to tackle the challenge.

Over the coming months, I’ll be sharing stories of PATH staff members, volunteers and community partners who work together towards the goal of permanently ending homelessness in our community. It is our shared commitment that drives change forward, and change begins with connection.

San José Spotlight columnist Laura Sandoval is the director of programs at PATH San Jose, a homeless services and housing development agency. She is also a licensed clinical social worker with over a decade of experience. Her columns appear every fourth Monday of the month. Contact Laura at [email protected]

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