New Hope Housing employs two outreach workers whose job it is to seek out and build relationships with unsheltered homeless people in Fairfax County. They both serve on teams with health professionals employed by the County and regularly visit encampments, bus stops, and other places frequently visited by homeless people.
The following is a quick introduction to Danica Hawkins, our outreach case manager for Region 2, and a lightly edited interview with her about her experiences as an outreach worker in the Bailey’s Crossroads community.
Danica grew up in Alexandria and most of her family still lives here. She graduated from West Potomac High School and then went to the University of Maryland where she received a bachelors in French Language & Literature and master’s degree in Modern French Language.
It was while Danica was teaching at a university in France that she began doing outreach work. She lived along the French/Italian border during the height of the refugee crisis and saw people in need every day.
“I just saw that there was an issue. I saw that there were these problems in my community. I was traveling all over Europe and just seeing refugees and migrants and displaced persons – just out next to these famous monuments where I was traveling and I thought, I have all this privilege and I can do something like this. I can do something to help.”
Danica helped refugees in camps and crossing the border. She handed out clothing and food, did some translation work, and helped with filling documents for visas, asylum, and identification cards. Danica did this on a volunteer basis part-time while school was in session, and then full-time for several months when school was out. She returned to the US on August 13, 2017 and began working for United Community Ministries (now United Community) the next day. About a year later, she applied to be the outreach case manager for Bailey’s Crossroads Community Shelter and started working for New Hope Housing in July 2018.
“I applied to be an outreach case manager because I knew I wanted to do on the ground field work directly client-facing. I had been working in development, but I was always drawn to working directly with the community.”
What were your first few weeks like as you learned the position?
“You really get thrown into it! In the best possible way, because I think that’s a really great way to see how things work. I am on an amazing team with other case managers who work directly out of the shelter. The difference is that all my clients are unsheltered, meaning they do not have a bed, and I am the only person in this area of the county who does that. So part of my training was going around to other parts of the county and shadowing their outreach workers and seeing their techniques and then just implementing their techniques here and seeing what worked with these particular clients that we were seeing.”
What are first reactions when you meet people on the street? Is it welcoming? Is it “who is this person?” Is it “go away?”
“It depends. As an outreach worker, when you’re going up to somebody, you kind of have to read the situation. For instance, if you are going up to an encampment, it is a lot more obvious that the person is experiencing homelessness, so you can kind of go up right away and say, ‘Hello! My name is Danica, I work for New Hope Housing, out of the Bailey’s Shelter’ and people are generally pretty receptive to that. Whereas if you go up to somebody who you suspect might be experiencing homelessness, maybe they have a bag next to them or you’ve seen them every day at the same bus stop, that you have to be kind of a bit more delicate with. I just try to be as polite and understanding as possible. Some people are a bit wary of my intentions, or some people don’t want to admit that they are experiencing homelessness and are not initially receptive to help. Even if they’re declining my services, as a majority, most people are open to chatting with me at least with a little bit of conversation.”
Do you, personally take the “No” as a definite “No” or as a “Not Right Now”?
I do like to respect boundaries, but I do also like to make my presence known – that I’m not giving up on people. I do outreach and I always wear this obnoxious bright yellow shirt. So, if I know that there’s a spot where somebody has absolutely said they are not interested in my services, I’ll still go around and walk around maybe give a wave so they know who I am and they know that I’m there and I’m coming back. So far…there are a few people who are still definite No’s. But I’m still going to be friendly and open to them.
For the non-encampment situations, what’s your opening line? You see someone at a bus stop or maybe have their bags…
If they have bags, I’ll introduce myself, and just say what I do. ‘I offer these such-and-such services and do you need help or do you know anyone’ – I think one thing that’s pretty good is just to say: I do Street Outreach and I’m trying to find people experiencing homelessness, have you seen anything or could you point me in the right direction? And oftentimes that kind of sparks a conversation and then they might see what services work for them.
Is it typical that people direct you to other people?
Yes, certainly people point me in the right direction. It’s not uncommon at all. My best tips for finding new clients has always been through current clients or potential clients.
Do you act on tips from people, volunteers, police?
YES! Tips come in from the community, from the police, from volunteers, from other clients – they’re so beneficial. I can’t even describe how helpful it is when someone calls the shelter or sends me an email or emails OPEH – the Office to Prevent and End Homelessness – and those tips trickle down to me because people see things that I don’t see. People are out at different times… even if I get the same tip about the same person 15 days in a row. I still know they’re there and I still know people in the community are checking on them. So if anyone does see someone potentially experiencing homelessness, contacting the shelter or any shelter even if it’s not in Fairfax County, if you see them out there elsewhere, it is very helpful to give a brief description, where they are, what time they were there, anything else you notice is really, really helpful.
How do you as a person deal with the stress of the job?
I’m extremely fortunate that at Bailey’s we have such an amazing team and our director is so supportive. So if I am stressed out, if I am feeling just completely distraught, I can go to any one of my team members and explain the situation and just – the camaraderie and the solidarity really helps.
But every time I leave work, I’m still thinking about my clients, If I’m at home and it’s raining I’m thinking about them. If I’m cold in my apartment and I just have to put on an extra blanket or turn up the heat, I’m thinking about my clients. But because of my team, it is really easy to deal, I find, and aside from that I’ve got really good family support.
If there are 18 supportive units going into the new Bailey’s Shelter and Supportive Housing how many do you think of your regular street clients would be immediately eligible?
It’s a question of eligibility that is really interesting. To be in a Permanent Supportive Housing unit, you need to be chronically homeless, which means you have to have a documented disability and twelve months consecutive or twelve months within 3 years (of homelessness). That is very difficult to document for a lot of clients who, especially in the Bailey’s Crossroads area where you’re maybe here for a few months, and then you slip into Arlington or Alexandria City and we’re all very close. So it is very hard because we do have to have official documentation of homelessness. I would have enough clients to fill those slots of chronically homeless but getting the documentation and the willingness to go inside and the trust and all that – that’s the road block.
Besides housing, what are some of their biggest needs either asked for or that you perceive and try to get?
Clients that I meet on the street ask me for items that are exactly what you and I need on a daily basis: socks and shoes, underwear, things that shouldn’t be a luxury but when you don’t have access to a shower or washing machine suddenly become a luxury. Men’s pants – there are amazing initiatives that take care of women and children – we see that lacking for adult single men. Also – one great way of engaging with a client is having food. Who doesn’t love a snack? Snack bags are fantastic because that really sparks conversation. Often times a client’s way more willing to open up once you physically give them something. A bag of chips is a really useful tool and you wouldn’t think of it as such.
Gas cards! We have access to bus tokens but gas cards are not often donated. We have clients who are sleeping in their cars and they’re just kind of stranded there because they’re waiting until or they might have to go to work and they can’t go anywhere else because they don’t have gas. Gas is needed to get to mental health appointments or their doctors or just to get around. And it doesn’t always have to be for a very important reason. People need gas in their cars.
Do you run into questions about needing identification? Are you working with Spread The Vote and other community groups?
Absolutely! I love Spread The Vote/Project ID! They are just incredible human beings. Spread The Vote has been doing an invaluable service for us. Getting identity documents for our clients and shelter clients – taking them to the DMV, taking them to the Social Security office – these things take hours. So when case managers do it, which we will happily do, that’s most of our day spent standing in line when we could have filled out other applications or met with clients or just checked in on people. Spread the Vote is again invaluable.
There’s certain housing programs you can’t get into if you don’t have an ID but if you don’t have an ID then you can’t get your social security card…It’s all connected.
To get an ID, you need a birth certificate and a social security card – to get your social security card, you need your birth certificate and ID. The only thing you can feasibly get is your birth certificate which sometimes you can order online but you have to answer a series of very arbitrary questions. Tell that to the mentally ill man who’s been living on the street for the past 15 years to try to answer these questions, to remember his mother’s cousin’s name or what hospital he was born in and that’s – that’s difficult.
And these are seemingly basic things. So yeah, I can’t say enough good things about Spread The Vote.
We also get amazing donations from some of the local churches like St. Luke’s Episcopal, they always donate SmarTrip cards for our clients, The Neighborhood Barbershop in Falls Church is incredible. They’re fantastic, I can just call them whenever and they will make themselves available to give a haircut but they are also are fantastic in that they will call me and say, hey I saw this person at this location, think they might have been experiencing homelessness and help me meet new clients.
Have you ever been in a situation where you were afraid and decided maybe not today Or I’ll get a buddy?
I have a strict “no going into the woods alone” policy or I should say that New Hope Housing has a “no going into the woods alone” policy. There have definitely been times where I say my Spidey senses are tingling, but I also think it’s really important to continue on and just be mindful. That may mean that I shoot a quick text to somebody at the shelter that says “hey I’m here at this location with this person” but it is about treating people equally. So if you are chatting with somebody who makes you uncomfortable you still should offer them the same sort of resources.
What do you want other people to know – about homelessness in general and about what you do? What do you want people to understand?
1 – I want people to know that it’s okay to feel uncomfortable when you’re seeing someone experiencing homelessness, but I want them to know also that the best thing you can possibly do is to say hello and to look people in the eye. Dignity is a very important thing.
I also want people to know anyone can do my job. It just takes a little extra courage on the daily. I’d like to think I have these special talents, but really you just need to be a bit braver, you need to go up to people and realize that your fear is not as important as their well-being.
2 – I would love for people to have a better understanding of the resources that are available for people who are poor or homeless and how unfortunately sometimes those resources are not enough for a person and can be difficult to access. That person you see on the street may be getting some sort of social security income but the highest you can get I think is $771per month. Try to get an apartment around here for that amount.
3 – There’s so many different causes of homelessness. You have so many people who just somehow through a series of unfortunate events have ended up here and have just not been able to just get to that next step.
4 – And also that every person is different and every situation is different.