During my time at PPOH, I spent one and a half days per week with a homeless outreach team.
In 2004, the mayor of New York wanted to reduce the number of people who experience homelessness in the city.[1. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg Announces Citywide Campaign to End Chronic Homelessness] National data suggests that the vast majority of people who become homeless are only homeless for a short period of time (less than one month) and never become homeless again.[2. From a National Alliance to End Homelessness fact sheet.] Thus, the mayor’s plan focused on people who experience chronic homelessness.[3. “In general, a chronically homeless person is an unaccompanied disabled individual who has been continuously homeless for over one year.”] Of that population, between half to two-thirds of them have significant psychiatric conditions.[3. Page 4-4 of The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research.]
Before describing further details of this plan, let me explain “housing first”:
Traditional housing models for the homeless are built on “merit”. The entry points for housing are generally homeless shelters (which excludes those who are homeless on the streets). Once these individuals connect with housing services, they must follow certain steps to “earn” housing. These steps include regular meetings with staff, taking medications (if indicated) as directed, abstaining from drug and alcohol use, and abiding by other (sometimes arbitrary) rules. Thus, people will only secure housing if they “follow the program”. Unfortunately, many people are unable to “follow the program” (due to psychiatric symptoms, drug and alcohol use, etc.).
“Housing first” is a model where chronically homeless individuals are given housing first. People only need to accept housing.[4. To be clear, people who are enrolled in “housing first” programs are not getting “free” housing. They sign leases, are expected to pay rent, etc. Their rent is generally one-third of their total income. If they receive entitlements, rent is usually taken directly from their monthly cheques.] There are no requirements to take psychiatric medication, to abstain from drugs and alcohol, etc. The underlying premise is people must have homes before they can address their other problems.[5. See Maslow’s hierarchy to learn a view about the importance of housing.] There is evidence that the “housing first” model saves significant health care dollars and improves health outcomes (decrease in number of homeless people; decrease in ER visits and hospitalizations; less time spent in jail).
Major social service agencies in New York City came together to form consortia (consortiums?) to house the chronically homeless according to the “housing first” model. Some agencies built or provided the physical housing; others supplied the staff to work in the residences. Still others provided the manpower to perform actual outreach to the homeless.
Each borough has its own consortium. I was assigned to work on a team in the consortium for Manhattan.
The borough of Manhattan was initially divided into seven sections, though these were ultimately condensed into five. Each section has its own outreach team. The outreach team I worked with was comprised of:
- a program director (social worker)
- a team leader (social worker)
- five housing workers (high school graduates to social workers)
- a receptionist (who also answered 311 calls about homeless individuals in Manhattan)
- and a psychiatrist (me)
The section we worked in was bounded by the southern tip of Manhattan, the East River, the Hudson River, and Houston Street. Our job, as a group, was to identify chronically homeless individuals, build rapport and encourage them to accept housing, and shepherd them through the housing process until they moved in.
Two of the housing workers were on duty from 5:30am to 1:30pm. They would travel throughout our designated section, either by car or on foot, and seek out people who were “bedded down”—those individuals who were sleeping on the street (or in other public spaces). After rousing people and introducing themselves, the workers would ask for homeless histories to learn if people were eligible for the program. If the individuals could tolerate it, the workers would then start to build rapport with the ultimate goal of encouraging them to accept housing.
You can imagine the reception they often got. Few people want their sleep disturbed, let alone by strangers. Furthermore, homeless individuals are only too familiar with police officers and people with malicious intent waking them while they are sleeping.
Housing workers who worked the day shift from 9:30am to 5:30pm also engaged in outreach, though they generally worked with homeless individuals who had already established connections with the team. They often helped people secure birth certificates, identification, and entitlements. They accompanied individuals on housing interviews, provided transportation for appointments, and advocated for them in various contexts.
There were also evening and overnight teams, though I never worked with them directly.
The team leader and program director provided supervision and support for the rest of the team. They also compiled data about housing placements. The more people a team housed, the more funding that team would receive. Despite the productivity expectation, we reminded ourselves that these people were people, not merely numbers.
The psychiatrist’s official job was to administer psychiatric diagnostic interviews to determine if the person had any psychiatric or substance use disorders. The diagnosis (or lack of one) would determine what type of housing the person was eligible for. (There were always more people than available housing. Yes, this is where a psychiatrist can become an agent of social control. More about this later.) Though I could meet with people in the office for interviews, I often went out with different workers to talk with people wherever they were. (Some people had significant psychiatric symptoms that interfered with their ability to meet anyone at a specific time or place, so I would often find them in subway stations, in public parks, behind garbage bins, on stoops, etc.)
I also provided education to the outreach workers, did regular outreach myself with a few clients whose psychiatric symptoms (often delusions) interfered with their ability to even consider housing, and provided informal supervision to the staff members. These housing workers, particularly the ones who work early in the morning, have tiring and often thankless job.
Of all the positions I had at PPOH, this was by far the most challenging for psychological and ethical reasons. Some people had severe psychiatric conditions. Many individuals lived in squalor. A lot of people experienced terrible things at the hands of their fellow human beings. People suffered.
As a team, we interacted with a lot of people. These included not only homeless individuals, but also police officers, ambulance crews, emergency rooms, hospitals, private property owners, homeless shelters, medical clinics, government agencies, staff at supportive residences, and the general public. Working with and in all of these different systems was often taxing and frustrating. Everyone in all these different arenas wanted to do “the right thing”, except people often had contradictory ideas as to what “the right thing” was.
In this position, I witnessed human dignity, creativity, and resilience. No one wants to be homeless. Many homeless people, whether they have psychiatric conditions or not, feel shame about their circumstances. They want things to be different, but they don’t know what to do. They try their best with what they’ve got. Sometimes their strategies work, sometimes they don’t. We can all recognize that in ourselves. And that’s how the line between “us” and “them” dissolves.