Outreach is the activity of providing services to any population that might not otherwise have access to those services. A key component of outreach is that the group providing it is not stationary, but mobile; in other words, it involves meeting someone in need of an outreach service at the location where they are. Compared with traditional service providers, outreach services are provided closer to where people may reside, efforts are very often voluntary, and have fewer, if any, enforceable obligations. In addition to delivering services, outreach has an educational role, raising the awareness of existing services. It includes identification of under-served populations and service referral and the use of outreach tools like leaflets, newsletters, advertising stalls and displays, and dedicated events. Outreach is often meant to fill in the gap in the services provided by mainstream (often governmental) services, and is often carried out by non-profit, nongovernmental organizations.
There are many different types of outreach, but they can be categorized into these four groupings: domiciliary (undertaken at individual homes), detached (undertaken in public environments and targeting individuals), peripatetic (undertaken at public or private environments and targeting organizations rather than individuals). and satellite outreach (where services are provided at a dedicated site).
The concept of street outreach to individuals that are experiencing homelessness is a classic example of a form of outreach. There are multiple governmental and non-governmental agencies that have sought to engage in this work because of the understanding that unhoused people tend to have increased barriers to access traditional services. Street outreach comes in different forms, from people walking around carrying supplies or offering resources, to mobile health clinics with teams of medical volunteers driving around and offering services. Regardless of its form, the essence of street outreach is the desire to meet people where they are at, build deep trust and connections, offer support, and reinforce the human dignity and respect that is deserving of all people. The core elements of effective street outreach include being systematic, coordinated, comprehensive, housing-focused, person-centered, trauma-informed, culturally responsive, as well as emphasizing safety and reducing harm.
Volunteers and government workers who work to provide housing through street outreach oftentimes operate under the Housing First Model, which became prominent in the United States after 2010. This model prioritizes getting individuals their basic needs before all else, alleviating their critical needs for things like food and shelter first before attending to secondary needs such as finding a source of income or attending to substance abuse issues. Although this model has been criticized as a "housing only" model, meaning that in some cases individuals are not provided with enough support or resources once they are housed, it is generally regarded as an effective solution to homelessness. Going hand in hand with street outreach is the Housing First Model. It is often the state provision towards homeless street outreach because it gives tangible results, gets people off the streets, and is overall beneficial for a cities economy. Government officials that perform street outreach with the Housing First Model in mind can sometimes be faced with backlash because these outreach services can be seen as a way for the government to expand control over a previously hard to govern group, or a method by which unhoused community members are pushed out of sight for the benefit of their housed counterparts.
Barriers to effective outreach in regards to providing housing for unhoused individuals come from limited housing options, local pushback from housed individuals, or mistrust between unhoused individuals and outreach workers. The Housing First model only works when outreach workers are able to redirect homeless individuals to adequate housing resources. When shelters are at capacity and supportive housing units are full, outreach workers cannot move individuals experiencing homelessness into housing. When creating new housing developments that cater towards the unhoused community, these developments are oftentimes met with pushback from local authorities or housed neighborhoods that harbor NIMBY sentiments. Another potential barrier is created by a sense of mistrust between unhoused individuals and governmental agencies and partners like outreach workers. Some unhoused individuals reject services and resources provided by outreach workers and are labeled as care avoidant or shelter resistant as a result. Typically this demographic of people reject help because they either view these services as ineffective or no longer trust a system that has failed them in the past.
In addition to redirecting unhoused individuals to housing resources, some outreach programs are also concerned with delivering and fulfilling other basic needs such as food, water, and hygiene. The kinds of services and resources provided vary based on the outreach organization and the resources available to them at the time. A number of non-profit organizations such as Dorothy Day House in Berkeley, California do mobile outreach services to areas of concentrated homelessness around the city to distribute essential items such as hot meals, groceries, water, rain gear, clothing, and hygiene products. Non-profit organizations concerned with providing basic needs tend to partner with local government as well as other non-profit organizations such as food banks in order to distribute these goods to the unhoused population for free. By providing these services through mobile street outreach, outreach volunteers act as the link between state-provided services and homeless individuals by increasing accessibility to these essential items.
Social services are an essential part of outreach work in any city. Outreach workers in this sector are responsible for connecting individuals to physical and mental health resources as well as drug and alcohol counseling. Typically, these services are provided by trained professionals such as clinicians, case managers, and social work specialists. This kind of outreach involves an element of physical and moral danger for the outreach worker, as the traditional boundaries between clinician and patient do not exist in this domain. There is potential for outreach workers in this domain put their own wellbeing at risk in order to help those who in some cases may not adhere to the help they are given. The role of the outreach worker can become uncertain in this practice—although outreach workers are supposed to be advocates, in this situation there is an inherent power dynamic that positions the outreach worker as the role of the gatekeeper, which allows them to wield the power over the unhoused individual to provide them with certain services.
Issues surrounding territory, respect, and understanding regarding the homes of the unsheltered when engaging in homeless service outreach is often a factor that is considered by outreach workers, especially for those concerned with providing social services. Volunteers aim to affirm the territories of those that are unsheltered by acts of respect for privacy (including asking for permission to enter a person's space, knocking on the frame of the tent to notify residents about potentially entering the homes of the unsheltered). Instead of coming from a place of governance and regulation that often results of Housing First centered street outreach, community outreach by volunteers are often focused on giving dignity and respect to the unhoused.
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