Sandoval: Outreach to our unhoused neighbors takes time, trust and tenacity
PATH outreach case managers Francesca Paist and Ryan Sharek connect with a participant during their regular Coyote Creek encampment outreach. Photo courtesy of PATH.

    There are a lot of misconceptions about people experiencing homelessness. A pervasive one is that unhoused people don’t want help, shelter or housing. From mine and my team’s years of experience, we have found that to be patently false.

    Quite the opposite: PATH’s 2021 client feedback survey showed 87% of our unhoused participants actively want housing.  Frankly, we’d expect that number to be higher, but we also understand why it’s not.

    People we meet often share more than one bad experience with a service designed to support them: education, health care, foster care, financial institutions and housing services, to name a few. After falling through multiple cracks, it’s easy to understand why many unhoused people might lose faith in, or actively distrust, the organizations who are here to help. That is why building, and oftentimes repairing, trust is fundamental to all outreach work.

    One of the most visible and tangible services for people experiencing homelessness is outreach. If you live or work downtown, you may have seen PATH staff, donned in blue polos, working with the unhoused. When our organization was founded in the 1980s, there was a clear understanding that people living on the streets, in parks and other places not meant for human habitation needed a connection to resources, help and caring people. While the resources available and tools we use are vastly different now, this still rings true today.

    In San Jose, PATH’s outreach teams have been serving the downtown core since 2015. PATH staff are trained in evidence-based and best practices to care for people actively experiencing trauma. Our staff strive to cultivate a safe space, empathic support to quickly assess and understand needs, and triage resources for ongoing care. We take pride in knowing the faces, names and stories of our unhoused neighbors. This summer, PATH expanded through the creation of a Community Assessment, Rapid Engagement (CARE) service, working during nontraditional hours to maximize our availability during moments of distress during the evenings and weekends.

    During the pandemic, PATH contracted with Santa Clara County to deploy a vaccine outreach and education team to connect unhoused people to COVID-19 information and vaccinations. As a result, PATH helped 424 medically vulnerable people get vaccinated, preventing rampant community spread and saving lives.

    The day-to-day hurdles while homeless can exacerbate stress and distrust. Efforts made toward change don’t always pan out: the apartment falls through, or the job offer doesn’t come or medications are lost during an abatement. Unsuccessful attempts at service linkages can create rifts between those helping and those being helped. These kinds of setbacks can disrupt progress for weeks, months or even longer. Yet roadblocks are rarely due to lack of effort or willpower.

    Available shelter is a current example of a frequent and significant stressor. The most recent data shows 6,739 unhoused people in San Jose—far exceeding available shelter beds. There are many coordinated efforts to increase shelter availability, but until that happens, thousands of people will not have the option to shelter.

    At present, PATH staff and participants together will spend hours calling and applying to shelters, only to learn there are no available beds. It’s not uncommon for people who often must disclose sensitive details of their health and social histories—repeatedly—for eligibility purposes, to decline another attempt in the future. Repeatedly sharing trauma is often retraumatizing. We understand we are asking for an act of faith every time we return with encouragement to try again.

    Building trust begins with getting to know the landscape and the people of the areas we are conducting outreach in. Our teams, in partnership with the city and community members, get to know the hotspots of where people congregate and establish encampments. Then we get to know the people.

    It might start with a simple, “Hello, how are you?” or by offering a bottle of water or a hygiene kit. We learn their names, we learn what circumstances lead to their homelessness and we offer ways we can help. And then, as we build a relationship, we show up for and advocate for them. We give reason for people to keep hope and put their trust in our partnership.

    While it’s overwhelming to know so many people are in need, we know outreach makes an impact. From July to September of this year, PATH outreach teams served 393 unhoused people, with 173 enrolled in PATH’s intensive case management services.

    Outreach staff made 2,097 unique and direct contacts and enrolled 98 people into our local coordinated entry system, putting them on track to be matched with housing and services, based on their need. In that three month-span, PATH linked 23 people to temporary shelter placements and 10 individuals transitioned into permanent housing.

    We are proud of these outcomes because of what each number means. That is why I am honored to highlight the work of my dedicated colleagues and thank them for their daily commitment to our unhoused neighbors. While some may think little is being done, I can assure you that every day, PATH is forging powerful connections to overcome personal and systemic struggles that span for decades. This work takes diligence and persistence to see progress, which PATH witnesses each time we celebrate another person making it home.

    San José Spotlight columnist Laura Sandoval is a regional director 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 every other month. Contact Laura at [email protected]

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