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Street Outreach Worker

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They sleep wherever they can find a place that is safe and shelters them from the elements. But sometimes they have to sleep on sidewalks without any cover except what they're wearing.

During the day, they may scour through garbage bins searching for something to eat or for cans that they can exchange for a nickel each. Or they may sit on curbs and park benches with empty gazes.

You may have even met some of them when they asked you if you could spare some change for a coffee. Most of them are men, and many look older than they should because of disease and distress.

They are the homeless of North America. And according to some, the number of homeless people on the streets is on the rise.

It is hard to say how many people across the U.S. and Canada are homeless. Only estimates are available, and most of them are dated, says the National Coalition for the Homeless.

For instance, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 750,000 Americans are homeless on any given night.

The only thing that is certain is that the problem of homelessness will not disappear anytime soon. Nor will the need for street outreach volunteers.

Generally, street outreach volunteers try to assist people who are living and working on the streets.

The kind of assistance that street outreach volunteers offer differs. Some may pass out food and clothing. Others may simply talk to people on the streets, pointing them towards resources and solutions that will help them get off the streets and turn things around.

"They make a huge difference, because often social services agencies are not funded to the extent that they need to be, and the fact that we have volunteers helps us to offer the services that we want to offer," says Laura Cowan. She is the executive director of a nonprofit organization that works with drug addicts.

"Often, the volunteers...have a lot of expertise and first-hand knowledge of the kind of services that we offer. For example, we have volunteers...who are actually living in the community and who actually have been on the street. That's really helpful because people [whom] they are bringing the services to can really relate to them."

Gaining the trust of the people whom you are trying to help is often difficult, and it may take a while. "They have to see you around," says Warren O'Hara, a volunteer.

"It's a world of tremendous suspicion and distrust. Nothing is safe. Their things are stolen when they turn their backs. They sort of have to get used to a new face."

O'Hara is just becoming a familiar face to a 53-year-old man. He had been living on the streets for four years and is suffering from severe memory loss.

O'Hara met the man through his volunteer work with the Salvation Army, and it's his goal to help him to put his life back together. So far, he has helped the man find and furnish a new apartment and to apply for welfare -- not on easy task if you consider that the man was without ID.

"All these things that we take for granted in our everyday lives are just a major challenge for him," says O'Hara.

But O'Hara, who just retired from his career as an investment advisor, says he enjoys his volunteer work very much. "I can't even express the pleasure I get from doing this."

Adam Dickerson also knows that it takes some time to gain the trust of the people. He says some react with suspicion. Others are more open and welcoming. But you never know.

"The most difficult part for me is when I am unsure of what kind of person I will encounter when I go out and talk," he says. He says he also finds it difficult to see the same people over and over. "That sort of bothers me. I would like for things to move along and progress to be made."

Dickerson and his partner, who used to be homeless, made some progress with a homeless man they had met on their rounds. They asked him if he wanted to stay the night at a shelter. The man refused. He wanted to stay with his friends and his bottle.

One week later, he ran into Dickerson and his partner again. This time, he went along with them. He even embraced Dickerson's partner at one point.

Dickerson has been able to share this and other stories with a group of high school students. He teaches them social justice. He says his volunteer work has helped him make the course more real -- social justice can be very theoretical.

Dickerson became a street outreach volunteer after he issued a challenge to his students. "I was urging the students to do some sort of act of social justice, and I realized, 'Hey, maybe I should do something, too.'"

June Averyt has been fighting homelessness for years now. "Homelessness is my thing, what can I tell you," she says.

She started to volunteer when she was studying to earn her doctorate in social welfare. "I had to work for somebody and the person that they had me working for had me doing data," she says.

"I looked at a lot of raw data -- shelter data and stuff like that. I felt like I could not do data unless I had a face that went with it. So I started volunteering. I'm much better as a volunteer than I am doing data."

But being a volunteer was not always easy because it often stirred deep emotions. Averyt says the most difficult part of her volunteer work was going home, and getting into her warm bed at night while others were sleeping outside.

"There was one lady, who was a light woman like I was, looked like I do pretty much, around my age and who slept on a grate. And if they are that close to you, you realize that it could have been you, had a few circumstances been different. That was the hardest thing. And there were a couple of times, I thought, I cannot continue to do this. It hurt too much."

How to Get Involved

Local health organizations, nonprofit groups and churches do street outreach work.

Anybody interested in becoming a street outreach volunteer should have a great deal of compassion, good people skills and good judgment, says Mark Bradley. He is the director of the outreach coordination center for a nonprofit organization that deals with homelessness.

You must also be comfortable working at night, he says. "We haven't really had any security problems, but I think for some people there is a concern," he says.

"If you feel uncomfortable around people who seem on the outside,...then it could be a good or bad experience depending on how you adapt," says Bradley.

"We need someone who is mature and fairly self-reliant, someone who preferably has a bit of experience with the issues that our clients are facing on the streets," says Cowan. "That's ideal."

And don't do this alone. "You want to be doing this with a crew that can back [you] up," says Averyt. "Because what you don't want to do is you don't want to freak somebody out."

The people whom you are trying to help may not like what you are doing, even if you have the best possible intentions, says Averyt. "They may not be coherent, or sane, or whatever enough to recognize your best intentions."

Safety is, of course, one big reason why you should do street outreach with one or more partners. But you may also need support if your outreach efforts do not go as well as planned.

You should also know why you want to become a street outreach volunteer. "Are you doing it to help them or to make yourself feel good?" says Averyt. "There is nothing wrong with making yourself feel good, but just make sure that you don't do any damage in the meantime."

As for physical requirements, this volunteer activity is not open to everybody. "It is not really accessible to somebody who has a physical disability because there is a lot of walking," says Bradley.


National Coalition for the Homeless
600-1012 14th St. N.W.
Washington , DC   20005-3410

Center for Social Justice


Project H.O.M.E.
An advocacy and support group for homeless people

National Alliance to End Homelessness
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