May Kirby on Being a Homeless Outreach Coordinator

May 16, 2013

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I have been a Homeless Outreach Coordinator with the Mental Illness Recovery Center for one year now.  My job encompasses working with homeless individuals- specifically, I attempt to locate people who have severe and persistent mental illness and screening them for our non-profit program which can provide permanent housing to those who meet the criteria.   However, in the midst of my outreach work, I also encounter those who may not have a mental health problem, but are  searching to re-connect the dots to the lives they once had.  They may need housing resources, medical care, short-term financial assistance, or employment assistance. My office is now located in the homeless hub of the city-center a large shelter which was built to provide transitional housing, and offers many of the services listed above.  The program offers emergency shelter, and a two longer-term programs which guide people back to stability.

One of the first things I discovered is that homeless people do not fit the stereotypical image of the ‘hobo’ one may imagine.  Homeless people use the same services as others in society.   We may have a coworker who is currently homeless.  Our children may attend school with homeless children.   Like mental illness, homelessness doesn’t seem to discriminate- it’ s an equal-opportunity predicament with an unequal opportunity for returning to sheltered living.

In November, I was approached to be the co-coordinator for Richland County in the Point In Time Homeless Count for 2013.  I said yes automatically!  I was excited about the vast experience I would gain through the process.  Not only that, but the other coordinator had years of experience with the court, so I immediately began brainstorming information I would glean from her!

We plotted and organized, planned and strategized, and two months later, on January 24, 2013, we launched into a four-day census of Richland County’s homeless population. What an exhilarating weekend!  We had a mapping team, as well a group of homeless volunteers and approximately seventy other volunteers from local agencies and law enforcement.  With the extraordinary collaboration between the mapping team and homeless individuals, we conducted surveys with more fidelity than we would have without those two forces.  After the count,  we received invaluable feedback for use in future counts.  The tone of this year’s count extremely powerful and I believe the power was the people- ALL who were involved contributed their time, energy, and most importantly, their experience to create one of the most profound human efforts I have ever seen.   Many things went well- others needed adjustment, and some things totally slipped through the cracks, but throughout the days of the count, volunteers were present, unbiased, and caring in their methods.

So here, at the beginning of my second year of outreach, I look forward to continuing my journey as a lifelong learner, and observer of people and behavior.  I think I have enough fodder for a very long career…

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