Bridges Outreach works to end homelessness through volunteer-driven outreach and individual case management focusing on health, housing, and independence. We asked Bridges’ President Richard J. Uniacke about their work, and the current state of homelessness in our community.
1) I understand that Essex County recently released a Point in Time Count on homeless individuals. What was the count – and in your view is it an accurate assessment of the number of people facing homelessness in our communities?
Essex County counted 1,914 people experiencing homelessness as of January 25, 2022, with Union County second among NJ counties at 677 people. Unsurprisingly, Newark saw 90.6% of Essex County’s total number with 1,695 people experiencing homelessness. Of those, 134 people were counted as living unsheltered. It is difficult for a count such as this one to accurately document the total number for several reasons, not the least of which is the number of hidden homeless households doubled up or sleeping in vehicles. By contrast, our Outreach and Engagement Team has so far this year interacted with 994 individuals who experienced unsheltered homelessness in Newark – that’s more than seven times the Point in Time number.
We can’t assume that our organic number is exhaustive either. The best way to truly define the need in a community is to integrate the systems with which people experiencing homelessness may likely interact, such as outreach teams, drop-in centers, soup kitchens, hospital, police agencies, and more. It’s going to take systems integration to get there.
2) What services does the City of Newark have for the homeless, and are these services enough to meet the need?
I think all cities trying to tackle homelessness struggle to do so, especially at first, and Newark has been doing a truly noteworthy job of it. In the wake of COVID-19, Newark stood up non-congregate shelter at hotels, established an Office of Homeless Services, and came up with numerous creative solutions to tackling homelessness. What is really needed most is permanent supportive housing with a Housing First approach. The ability to offer people something as dignified as permanent housing is the only proven way to achieve what we’re all aiming for – an end to chronic homelessness.
3) The City of Newark has also recently released a new strategic plan to end homelessness. Can you tell us more about the plan – and how it connects to the work of Bridges Outreach?
One of the most exciting things happening in Newark right now is the Strategic Planning effort and the partnership with Built For Zero. The essential first step is to define the size of the need. Bridges plays a key role in this, and as our Outreach Specialists, Case Managers and other team members enter data into the HMIS (Homeless Management Information System), these data contribute in substantial ways to understanding the needs of our most vulnerable neighbors. This same data-driven, continuous improvement approach is how Bergen County, NJ became the first community in the US to objectively end chronic homelessness.
Bridges Outreach plays other important roles in the effort. First, we are strategic partners in thinking about the systems themselves, how they interact, where they break down, and how we are failing people. Second, as a provider of direct outreach services, we engage with large numbers of people seeking support for current or imminent homelessness. From our outreach we can make shelter placements, connect people to healthcare in all forms, and connect them to critically-needed case management to shepherd people through their journey.
4) Tell us more about the model that Bridges Outreach uses in its work. How do you make a difference in the lives of those experiencing homelessness?
Our approach, for nearly 35 years, has always been to meet people where they are at and to address some of their most urgent needs, such as food, clothing, and hygiene items. Over time we have seen, particularly as we have navigated COVID-19, that the Newark/Essex community has come together under a public health lens, and that by being on the streets as much as we are – developing trust and building rapport – we have the opportunity to do so much more for people.
We’re fortunate to have some tremendously experienced staff members on our Outreach Team, 90% of whom have lived experience with homelessness. Through our outreach and engagement program, we have Outreach Specialists and Case Managers on the streets of Newark from 3pm-11pm each night, as well as twice-weekly outreach runs supported by volunteers. Project Connect-Newark is our busy drop-in center on Halsey Street.
Beginning with the first encounter, so many of which take place on the street, we are assessing needs and trying to meet them. It often begins with a brown bag lunch. Sometimes it can take one hundred or more engagements on the street before we move forward, but we persist. Our aim is always on permanent housing.
5) Could you tell us about how Bridges Outreach works to improve the health of those it serves?
One of the key changes the COVID-19 pandemic made on our work is that it thrust the work of ending homelessness into the realm of a public health response. Our work, from engaging people living unsheltered to shepherding a person through the journey of obtaining permanent housing is healthcare. We regularly connect people with substance use treatment, behavioral healthcare, urgent medical care, vaccinations, and more; and what it all boils down to is that housing is healthcare. People experiencing homelessness are often high utilizers of emergency departments and consistently have healthcare needs which are aggravated by the instability in their lives.
6) Your outreach workers use the technique of “motivational interviewing” with clients. Can you explain what this is, and how it works?
Motivational interviewing is a counseling style that our teams use in a co-creation approach with people experiencing homelessness to help them develop the internal motivations necessary to for behavior change. It's important that this be self-motivated. Motivational interviewing encourages clients to verbalize the changes they believe to be necessary and to explain their reasons for wanting change. Initially, interviewers will ask open-ended questions, listen reflectively, summarize and affirm the client’s points, and encourage self-motivational statements. This approach can be an effective link to more intensive case management and other approaches, including substance use treatment and behavioral healthcare.
7) Bridges Outreach’s current project funded by HFNJ hit many of your benchmarks as far as people reached on the street and those linked to housing much earlier than anticipated. To what do you attribute the project’s success – and could this be a sign that more people than expected are experiencing homelessness in 2022?
Including licensed social workers in the Outreach and Engagement process has so far yielded greater results than we projected. Some of that may be due to the effectiveness of this approach as it involves a layer of capacity not often available on the streets in such a trusted fashion.
Unfortunately, another reason is the growing need. A lot of emphasis is being placed on Diversion programs right now, which aim to divert people from the shelter door. When our folks encounter someone in an imperfect situation who will imminently require a shelter bed, we aim to intervene in any way we can to stabilize that situation. No matter how imperfect it may be, it’s preferable to needing a shelter bed. If true numbers for other segments of people experiencing homelessness are similar to the disparities we’ve seen with the unsheltered number in the Point In Time Count, then we have a much larger number of people in need of services than is being reported.
Learn more about Bridges Outreach and their work: https://bridgesoutreach.org