We’ve all heard it – or at least part of it – the unofficial motto of the United States Postal Service: Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
As Philadelphia experiences what is slated to go down as the coldest February in its recorded history, there’s another group of folks who are the living embodiment of such extraordinary dedication: the team members of the Homeless Street Outreach (HSO) program of the Hall-Mercer Community Behavioral Health Center at Pennsylvania Hospital.
The HSO is part of a network of hospitals and non-profits that have people outside during a Code Blue when the temperatures in the city dip dangerously low. “Hall-Mercer has been partnering with The City of Philadelphia since the mid 1980's to provide street outreach to the homeless,” said Patty Inacker, LCSW, MBA, director of Operations of Hall-Mercer. “Over the years, our involvement has expanded due to the increased number of homeless individuals and families.”
For all 365 days in the year, teams of two from the HSO hit the streets searching for homeless in need.
Homeless Street Outreach engages those who are living on the streets and offers emergency housing options, or if needed, emergency physical or behavioral health treatment options. “Our teams check on folks to see if they’ve eaten, if they need warmer clothing and find out where they plan on staying for the night,” said Maryanne Bourbeau, MS, manager, Targeted Case Management, Hall-Mercer. “Although our outreach team maintains a caseload of homeless individuals who they follow-up with regularly in the community, they will engage anyone who is vulnerable on the streets.”
The HSO at Pennsylvania Hospital is one of only five homeless outreach programs in all of Philadelphia County.
In addition to combing the streets of Center City on foot looking for those in need, team members also respond to calls from Project HOME's Outreach Coordination Center. When calls come in from the Center, team members are given a description of the person and their geographical location and then they're off – via a hospital-owned van to anywhere they are needed in Philadelphia County. “The teams of each program are in constant contact with each other and together we provide virtually 24-7 coverage throughout the city,” said Bourbeau.
The dedicated team members make contact with an average of 15-20 homeless people a night.
Working in teams of two, there is Monday through Friday daytime coverage from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and evening coverage from 2-10 p.m. However, when the city calls a Cold Blue and the situation gets more desperate outside, the evening teams are out braving the elements until midnight.
There is also a weekend shift covering 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays and one supportive backup team member who fills in as needed.
For day shift outreach team member Maryann Styles, who has worked with the program for the past nine and a half years, her career choice came over time. “At first I was only working the weekend shift. I was teaching pre-K and kindergarten during the week,” said Styles. “When the opportunity came up to work full time I took it because I really enjoy working with people.” While Styles admits the work can be very upsetting emotionally sometimes, it can also be very rewarding to “to meet such interesting people and get them off the street and the help they need.”
For Style’s dayshift outreach partner, Melvice Holliday, who has been with the program for 10 years, working outreach was as “culture shock” at first. “I always worked in the mental health field,” said Holiday, “but was used to working in the controlled environment of an inpatient unit. So going out on the streets and encountering homeless people was certainly more challenging. We have to be very sensitive to invading peoples’ personal space, approach them with respect and treat them with dignity."
“Our outreach team builds relationships with the homeless community by being empathetic and also very importantly, reliable,” said Bourbeau. ”Having this positive and consistent presence in someone’s life is the best way to assist that person with overcoming the barriers that might interfere with him or her accepting housing, treatment, or even engagement.”
If you see someone in Philadelphia experiencing homelessness and who needs help, please call the 24-Hour Homeless Outreach Hotline at 215-232-1984 or 1-877-222-1984.