NOAH Project connects to people who are homeless with street outreachQ&A with Matt Gatti: Nonprofit Journal Project

In the NOAH Project’s name, NOAH stands for Networking, Organizing, and Advocating for the Homeless. The organization works to end homelessness, and its Street Outreach Program engages people who are sleeping on the streets. Matt Gatti is the NOAH Project’s street outreach manager.

Could you tell me how the Street Outreach Program works?

We are a city-funded program contracted to provide two primary services. One is called basic needs outreach, which consists of our staff engaging with individuals in the community who are unsheltered. That is anyone whose primary nighttime residence is a place not meant for human habitation. Someone sleeping on the street, in a park, in their car, in a vacant building, in a parking structure, for example, is eligible for our program. Four nights a week, we have staff driving around the City of Detroit in teams of two, looking for folks and engaging with them on the streets.

During these shifts, we always bring food and water. In the colder months, we have blankets and hand warmers. By providing these basic needs, it's also an opportunity to engage people, build a rapport, and begin to get a better idea of whether they have any longer-term goals that they want to work towards. This could be as simple as getting a state ID or as big as working towards permanent housing.

What’s the next step after providing these basic needs?

The second aspect of our work is a process called housing navigation, in which we complete an assessment with an individual to kind of measure their vulnerability. And depending on a number of factors, including this assessment, people qualify for various housing resources that are available. We help them collect documentation and fill out forms to submit to CAM Detroit, a centralized referral system for shelter and permanent housing. CAM manages all the referrals. We also offer transportation to an emergency shelter in Detroit, or if it's during the daytime, we can help the individual call the CAM hotline to get a referral for a shelter bed, so that bed is reserved for them.

What are some of the challenges people face in this process?

Most housing providers are going to need to see a state ID, so we work with people towards getting a state ID or social security card and completing paperwork. We also help document the length of time that they've been homeless. For example, when we've engaged folks who are living in a vacant building that's next to an auto shop, we've been able to make contact with people at the auto shop to sign a letter saying: “Yeah, I've known this person for a year, and they’ve been staying in that vacant building for a year.”

Could you share an example of someone who has gotten on the path toward their long-term goals after engaging with them through the Street Outreach Program?

There’s a younger man that was living in downtown Detroit, often sleeping on a steam grate on a street corner. We'd been engaging him for quite some time, and he had expressed a lot of interest in working towards a lot of these larger goals, but actually taking the time to make an appointment to come to our office was often a challenge. Like a lot of folks, this individual was really busy just meeting his basic needs, making sure he could go get breakfast, get his laundry done, and take a shower, and he also had some substance use and mental health issues.

Eventually, he agreed to do an intake right there on the street. One of our case managers sat down on the ground with him and took 30 minutes to ask him some questions and sign some paperwork. That was a big first step, but there were still a lot of barriers. We saw him on and off for a long time, always making ourselves available. He disappeared for a while. But then he showed up at our office and told our case manager: “I'm ready to get the work done.” We got his documentation submitted to CAM, and he was referred to a permanent housing program. Several weeks ago, we got him a ride there to do his intake and get his keys to move into the building.

How does the program’s approach equip staff for this kind of outreach?

People experiencing homelessness are an incredibly misunderstood group of people in our community. This is why some of the best practices we use, like trauma-informed care and harm reduction, are so important, so that we have people who can, to the best of their ability, understand where these individuals are coming from and recognize the larger systems of oppression that these individuals are living within. We take a housing-first approach, recognizing that people may have disabilities and serious trauma histories that make it very difficult for them to obtain housing or employment completely independently. Providing someone with a home first and foremost, and giving them that stability, works as a foundation for people to work on other goals that they might have, whether it's working towards employment, receiving treatment for a substance use disorder, or even just routinely getting appropriate medical care. All those goals are a lot easier to take care of when you have the stability of a home.

What are you looking forward to with the Street Outreach Program’s work?

When I took over NOAH’s Street Outreach Program a little less than three years ago, it was just me going out on my own. I'm really happy with the growth of the program. Now I'm the manager of the program, and we have two case managers on our team, both with a wealth of experience in homeless services, and they're doing an awesome job. Just in the last three months, we've been able to expand our services to do the outreach shifts four nights a week, which is the most we've ever done. We're able to provide services to more and more people. And the housing navigation piece is new for us, so we’re able to be a client's primary case manager in their journey towards permanent housing. It’s a really special experience to journey alongside these individuals as they work towards their goals.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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