Street scene

New program forges personal connections with the homeless
By DEIRDRE FULTON  |  July 21, 2010

Walking down Congress Street with John Dana and Jesse Flynn on a Friday afternoon, I am struck by how many people's names they know.

No, it's not how many names they know. It's whose names they know. They know the men and women who are often anonymous, fixtures on Portland's streets but unknown to most. They know names where many of us — if we're being honest — barely see faces.

Dana and Flynn work the noon-8 pm shift for Portland's new Homeless Outreach & Mobile Engagement (HOME) Team. Tuesday through Saturday, they wander Portland, in a van and on foot, along Congress Street between Monument and Longfellow squares, through Oxford and Preble streets, down by the Maine State Pier. They walk an average of six or seven miles per day, they estimate, and talk with anywhere from 25 to 50 people — homeless people, drug and alcohol abusers, the mentally ill, couples, teenagers — as they go.

Some of the interactions are brief. Check-ins. Hey, how's it going, good, good. Some are introductions. Hi, I'm Jesse, I'm working with the HOME Team, we help homeless people in Portland. Some are longer conversations. So you're concerned about your drinking? Have you ever been to detox? We could take you, if you want to go. Just flag us down — we're out here every day. Let me know and we'll make it happen. Some are mutually appreciative. We're here for you, man. Others are more combative. Are you patronizing me?

As often as they can, Dana and Flynn use people's first names, shake their hands, look them in the eyes. Their goal, no matter how long the encounter, is to make a personal connection, to build relationships so that in-need individuals are more likely to seek help, use appropriate resources, make change.

The HOME Team project, modeled after similar initiatives in Burlington, Vermont, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, is led by the Milestone Foundation, which runs an emergency shelter and detoxification facility in Portland, as well as an extended-stay substance-abuse treatment center in Old Orchard Beach. Collaborators include the Preble Street Resource Center, Oxford Street Shelter, Portland Health and Human Services, Portland Downtown District (PDD), and the Portland Police Department. It's paid for with money from a variety of sources: $100,000 from a federal Community Development Block Grant, $28,000 from the PDD, $40,000 in United Way fundraising, and $50,000 in in-kind donations. Additional money from the PDD and the Bayside Neighborhood Association allowed outreach workers to start training, half-time, a few months before the official July launch.

There's no set routine. Those who work the early shift (from 7 am to 3:30 pm) aim to catch up with some of the 300 or so people who exit Portland shelters every morning, then help them follow through with daily activities like medical appointments, employment consultations, or substance-abuse treatment meetings. Later in the day, encounters can include one-minute conversations, social-service referrals, van rides to detox centers, and interventions in intimidating or disruptive situations.

Flynn — a recovering addict himself, who's worked for two years at the Milestone Foundation — admits the work can be emotionally draining. But armed with coffee, cell phones, badges on lanyards, and smiles, he and Dana don't seem worn down. They are a perfect pair: Dana playing the professorial, fatherly role, Flynn relating on a more streetwise level. Their words, transcribed here, sound hokey, but their in-person offerings are far from condescending.

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