NCFY Reports

Safety's the Rule for Street Outreach Workers

It didn’t matter that the gun he waved at them was fake. Mary Jo Meuleners and her partner tried not to show their fear, sitting motionlessly on their park bench as the man, a crack addict, yelled and cussed.

“Next time, this gun’ll be real, and I’m gonna [expletive] kill you!”

The outreach workers, then members of StreetWorks Collaborative, a group of human services agencies that work together to reach street youth in Minneapolis, Minnesota, held still and didn’t utter a word. When the man finally backed away, they left as quickly as they could.

“I’ve had some really crazy stuff happen to me,” says Meuleners, now a community health specialist at Minneapolis’s Red Door Clinic, run by the Hennepin County Human Services and Public Health Department, “which is why I take safety really seriously.”

Often, outreach workers walk streets where fights, gunfire, prostitution, and drug exchanges form a regular backdrop and where many inhabitants view them as outsiders. Agencies need to have—and workers need to follow—safety guidelines, because one never knows what will happen next, Meuleners and others say.

“The whole environment of the street is unpredictable, and there are so many different people with different agendas and so many forces that can contribute to an environment that you can’t always predict what will happen next,” Meuleners says.

Knowing how to avoid risks and keep out of harm’s way takes a combination of instinct and experience, says Ryan Barrieau, street outreach supervisor at Child and Family Services, a FYSB grantee in Manchester, New Hampshire.

“If I know we need to leave immediately, then we need to leave immediately,” he says. “You have to act on instinct. That instinct is developed over time. At the same time, seasoned outreach workers can fall into the trap of ‘nothing’s happened to me, so I’ll go off by myself.’”

Often, that’s when something goes wrong. And without his or her partner as backup, an outreach worker can find it more difficult to get away from a hostile person or the overwhelming press of a crowd of youth wanting supplies and snacks.

So, it’s important for outreach workers to stick together and to mind the rules of safety, not only to protect themselves, but also to protect their partners and the young people they work with, Meuleners says. “I’ve got your back, and I want to feel that you have mine.”

Heather Bradley, a youth outreach coordinator at the Night Ministry, a FYSB grantee in Chicago, offers another perspective and stresses the importance of remembering that, every day, street youth face greater dangers than staff, who can go home at the end of their shifts.

“These kids have been violated and exploited by adults. I think my safety risks are so low compared to them,” she says. “I’m no hero. It’s not dangerous what I do. I’m just hanging out with kids.”

Safety Tips

The relative danger of the streets an outreach team roams depends on the neighborhoods or areas in which they work. Vicki Lawton at Panhandle Community Services in Gering, Nebraska, says, “It may not be as bad in the rural areas, but there are just certain common sense things that we all need to follow.” Indeed, safety measures may vary slightly among agencies and different outreach teams, but some general principles apply. Among them:

Never work alone. Outreach workers say they always use the buddy system, working in teams of two or sometimes three. StreetWorks, in Minneapolis, has refined its approach into what it calls the “Batman and Robin” protocol, Meuleners says. “Batman is the lead, and Robin hangs in back to keep things safe,” she explains.Sidekicks buffer their partners from distractions around them, helping them to focus on their conversations with young people.

Working as a team can also protect outreach workers from false allegations of misconduct, says Ben Solheim, outreach supervisor at Orion Center, a program of FYSB grantee YouthCare in Seattle, Washington. “It’s a cover-your-own-butt kind of thing. You never know what kinds of things people might say against you.”

Let people know who you are. Always introduce yourself to people in the neighborhood you’re working, Meuleners says. Otherwise, she says, “People might make wrong assumptions. They might think you’re a cop.”

Depending on their agency’s policies, workers can identify themselves either by talking to people or by wearing a badge or T-shirt from the agency or collaborative.

Don’t dress to impress. Outreach workers say they don’t wear jewelry or clothing that will make them stand out. Barrieau calls this cultivating a “nonpersonal” appearance. “Jewelry, talking on a cell phone— personal things allow people to talk about non-street-outreach stuff,” he says.

Meuleners wears comfortable, casual clothes and “shoes I can run in.” And Barrieau tells staff members not to wear sunglasses, “so people can look them in the eye.”

Pare down the personal items you carry. Meuleners carries car keys, identification, cash, and her cell phone in her pockets. That way, if she ever has to leave her backpack behind, all the items she needs are with her.

Barrieau sees other advantages to paring down. By leaving their wallets behind, Barrieau says, his staff can respond honestly to panhandling youth. “It allows us not to get into a conversation about whether we have money,” he says.

Be consistent, trustworthy, and ethical. “We see the same kids day in, day out,” Solheim says. He tells his staff to “be a consistent figure on the streets and just kind of let them know we’re there if they need our help.”

That philosophy has kept Solheim safe, he says, because young people will protect outreach workers when necessary. He cites a recent incident when Orion Center’s street outreach van ran out of socks, a valuable commodity on the streets.

One young man, about 20 years old, showed his displeasure. “He raised his voice and cursed, created a scene,” Solheim says. “His peers stepped in and told him to calm down.”

Keeping high ethical standards and professional boundaries (no business with clients, no seeing them outside of work time, no spending time alone with them) has a similar effect, Bradley says.

Because staff of the Night Ministry have built trusting relationships with young people, “youth are very protective of us,” she says. “If someone’s rude, they immediately stand up for me.”

Be a good observer. A veteran street outreach worker once told Meuleners, “When you get somewhere, you don’t have to jump in right away. Drive through. Observe.”

Meuleners has practiced that advice, to good advantage. “I like to just sit,” she says. “People just come up to ask why I’m there. It’s a good way to get the hang of what’s going on.”

Share what you know about specific young people. “Everybody has certain clients they know better than others do,” Solheim says. “They might know what’s going on in their lives and can tell others when it’s best to engage with them or to stay away.” Some reasons to stay away might include a youth’s recently breaking the law or using more drugs. Solheim also recommends keeping some distance when a street youth dies, to give other young people time to mourn. “We give them room to be themselves … and let them approach us if they want to.”

Don’t get lulled into complacency. “Sometimes street outreach can get boring and it’s easy to get into ruts,” Meuleners says. “Because it can get boring, people can get careless. They think, ‘Nothing’s happened forever, so nothing’s gonna happen.’ They don’t realize how quickly things can change.”

One way to switch things up, she says, is to change partners occasionally, but she also notes that partners need to have trust and shared safety rituals.

Know the “gatekeepers.” These are people known and trusted in the neighborhood, and they can include convenience and other store owners. “They know everybody in the neighborhood,” Meuleners says. “They kind of have a feel for the community because that’s their livelihood. They’re your safety net when you need them.”

Gatekeepers can assist outreach staff, intervene if staff find themselves in conflict with community members, and vouch for street outreach workers’ motives. Meuleners points to her own experience with the man with the gun. After that incident, she approached Sam, a man who roamed around a strip mall acting as a sort of informal security guard for the neighborhood. Sam told her, “I’ll talk to him, and it will never happen again.”

“It never did,” Meuleners says. “And I didn’t stop going there.”

Keep an eye on neighborhood safety levels. A drug bust, an explosion of violent crime—knowing these things have happened recently in a neighborhood might make Barrieau reassess whether to send outreach workers there on a particular day. “This requires a relationship with the local police department, as these potential issues may be unbeknownst to us,” he says. “Or, if an area is known to be dangerous, we have called the police to ask if there have been any reported crimes during that day. Believe it or not, there have been occasions where we were advised not to go into certain neighborhoods.”

Establish a code word. Mentioning the secret word or phrase signals that the team should leave immediately for a safer place. “Some people might think it’s silly, but having those measures in place just makes me feel safer,” Meuleners says. She has long used the sentence “I need to call Karen.” A codeword might be agreed upon by partners, or it might be shared among everyone at the agency.

Know when to back off. Outreach workers say they stay away from the scenes of drug trades or other illegal activities. They avoid anyone with a weapon, people fighting, or someone obviously drunk or high. Barrieau describes things to look for: a tense look or facial expression, yelling or cursing, and aggressive behavior.

“If there’s a risky situation, we leave before it escalates to the point of danger,” Barrieau says. “So it’s important to recognize a risky situation well before it gets dangerous.”

Bradley looks for signs in crowds as well as in individual behavior. Is a group of people acting loud and rowdy? Are people tense and yelling, or are they just goofing around? Have you spent a good amount of time trying to calm people down to no effect?

One fight Bradley witnessed started as one person attacking another, with others trying to break it up. But then the tide turned. “It disintegrated into like a barroom brawl sort of thing, where everybody’s hitting everybody,” she says. “We backed off. … At the end, we pulled out the Band-Aids and the Bactine and asked people what we could do better next time to contain things.”

Show extra caution in isolated areas. Agencies differ in their policies about sending outreach workers into highly secluded areas. The Orion Center has the same policy for all staff. “We always go out in heavy traffic areas,” Solheim says. “We don’t go into squats or under bridges.”

But Manchester’s Child and Family Services differentiates between youth and adult staff members. “We don’t take teen staff under bridges or in secluded areas where it’s not in public areas,” Barrieau says. “Adults do that.”

Even so, when adult outreach workers go under bridges or into the woods, “we typically consult with outreach workers from other agencies to discuss potential risk factors associated with those locations,” he says.

Don’t give out personal phone numbers or talk about personal things. “Keep interactions safe,” Solheim says. “Don’t engage in personal conversations that might reveal your place of residence or loved ones. Always keep in mind you’re out there working and you’re not their friend.”

Use basic deescalation techniques when confronted by angry or aggressive community members. These are simple methods for defusing a tense situation. For instance, Barrieau says, a worker might respond to an angry person by saying, “I understand where you’re coming from. How can we help you?”

Take care of yourself, and encourage your partner to do the same. “We have to be mentally and physically healthy before we can help anybody else,” Solheim says. “It’s hard to see the same kids every day, not working toward change. You need to keep things in perspective.”

In the particular case of adolescent outreach workers, Barrieau says, “We identify things that are meaningful to the teens to help preserve their emotional state and avoid burning out, whether it’s take a walk, watch a movie, take five minute alone.” Barrieau encourages a young person who’s having a bad day to take the day off. “We encourage self care because they may make less risky decisions and focus on delivering the service.”

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