by William Skink
It is so strange and surreal to listen to conversations about what it would look like to have social-work-type people responding to certain situations instead of police because that was literally my job for years at the shelter.
To back up that claim, here is an article in which I’m quoted from 2012. It’s quite bizarre to read the following quotes from that idealistic Travis Mateer from eight years ago:
Mayor John Engen initiated the Real Change not Spare Change program in 2001. The goal of the program is to encourage people to donate spare change to programs specifically designed to assist the homeless rather than giving coins to panhandlers.
Instead the money will be handled by what’s called a Homeless Outreach Team.
“We’re handing out socks and we’re handing out sack lunches,” said Travis Mateer, the Poverello Center’s Outreach Program Coordinator. “We’re communicating with the people and in a dignified way that acknowledges their humanity and then trying to address what their barriers are.”
The team helps connect shelter residents to community services they might not find on their own like substance abuse programs, the bus system, medical care and the simple basics like food and clothing.
“What we’re hoping to do is use our relationships that we have as social service providers to take on some of that role as a first responder,” said Mateer. “We want to respond to and assess situations, to try and lessen the amount of times the police and the EMT’s have to come in and respond to it.”
Now, with eight years of hindsight, let me explain why my program kicked so much ass. I’ll try to be as humble as I can in promoting its awesomeness.
The program’s HOTline was a flip phone I kept in my pocket. After doing lots of outreach to downtown businesses, I started getting calls. After a few years of providing this response service (during business hours) I learned a few things about what I could do, that police could not.
To begin with, just the existence of an alternative phone number to 911 was well-received. Most people who called the HOTline had either tried calling the police, with poor results, or they didn’t feel calling the police was the right thing to do in the first place.
Calling the HOTline meant putting me in contact with someone causing concern before having to involve police. I could approach the situation in my trademark bright orange t-shirt or hoodie, and I carried with me sack lunches, clean socks, and bus passes.
One of my signature customer service techniques that differentiated my response service from other first responding services was “the follow up”. This might not sound like a big deal, but doing a follow up after making contact with whoever was causing concern was the absolute key to my success.
Before getting to why the follow up was so critical, I should explain that there are very good reasons why other responders could not do what I did, and those include privacy, how resources are prioritized, and lack of training.
Follow up was critical because that was where the bulk of the education took place. I would explain to the concerned citizen (often an employee or business owner) what kind of services were available, what kind of gaping holes existed in the safety net, how to be a squeaky wheel, and the importance of calling 911 whenever there was a SAFETY concern.
I should probably back up and say advocating for the use of 911 is a bit different in a college mountain town that’s over 90% white than it would be in other cities and states where the act of calling 911 can be lethal to a non-white citizen.
At the time of my employment with this program at the shelter, I was working to change the system, so I thought it made sense to push for more 911 calls, when appropriate, then the data would better describe the problem, then we could get more funding for solutions, like my totally awesome program that could credibly claim every HOTline call was a diverted 911 call.
Boy was I naive.
If anyone wants to learn from my first-hand experiences, or share THEIR first hand experience, you can find me at willskink at yahoo dot com.
While I may have gratuitously outed myself for closer inspection, I respect the need of people within these systems to be careful when they talk about what they may know.
Risk is everywhere. Just keep that moral compass handy, and be ready to make whatever small action you can when the time is right.
I have faith in you.