Insights from Inside Shasta County Homeless Camps: Interview with an Outreach Worker

I believe we find lasting solutions when we combine the insights of those working on the ground every day with the perspectives of those with a bird’s eye view of all the systems, organizations, and actors involved.

I tend to be a big-picture thinker, studying the data, understanding the systems, and analyzing crosscutting opportunities, which is why I know I need to surround myself with incredible people, like Paul Abbott.

Paul knows many of the several hundred people living on the streets in our county by name through his work with the Good News Rescue Mission and now, Shasta Thrive.

I think we all can learn a lot from this ~20-minute conversation I had with him:

Here is a summary of 4 takeaways I left the conversation with:

Most of those living on the streets have experienced years of trauma and antisocial environments: “There is a small minority of people out there who have had some bad luck who can be given a hand up and get back on track fairly quickly… [But] for hundreds of stories, most grew up in a toxic relationship with families from the get-go. What we would see as common sense in normal life, they have never lived it… 90% of the people out there have just lived a life of chaos.”

For many of the chronically homeless, accessing services that could help them is too hard: “The forms that you have to fill out – I’ve done this a lot, whether it’s with general assistance, with housing – the restrictions we have on people living in the camps, who aren’t getting a good night sleep, who are on drugs, to follow through and fill out the forms… it’s never going to happen. It’s not designed for the homeless. Even with a case worker, like I’ve been, it’s complicated.”

For some, quick housing placements are sufficient, but many need much more support: “Well, housing definitely is an issue. We need shelters. …We need to value diversity because people are very diverse. I’ve helped some people get back into housing within 2 weeks. They just had some bad luck and they needed to get back… Other people need community and friends. Otherwise, they are going to fall back. You put them in a housing-first situation, their friends are going to come in there and they’re going to trash the house. And it just pollutes the whole housing first approach and it’s not easy getting landlords engaged.”

Longer programs that provide a new, healthy community seem necessary: “Some of the programs that are the most successful are the longer ones where their behavior can catch up with what they are learning and they are living in community and everyone is holding themselves accountable… [But] once they get out of those programs, now what? …If they don’t have new friends and new community, they fall back out. That’s what breaks my heart when I see people and I’m getting their stories, and I learn how many times they have been to rehab, that they’ve been to these programs. ‘So what are you doing out here?’ You ask enough questions and you realize, ‘Well, I never found new friends who are healthy.’”

Yes, this is a complicated challenge, but I will repeat what I said a few weeks ago – We can significantly reduce homelessness in Shasta County, making it brief and rare. If we stay focused on the goal and use a process of continuous improvement – identify what is and isn’t working, grow what is working, and run experiments to fix what is not – we will see progress.

Have experience with homelessness or helping those without a home? I’d love to hear it.