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National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families

NCHYF Voices: Bringing Street Outreach Experience to DC's Point-in-Time Count

Dan Davis has been a street outreach worker in Washington, DC, for years, connecting homeless young people to services. In late January he joined 350 volunteers in the city's annual count of people experiencing homelessness. As he canvassed the streets, Dan explained what street outreach professionals who work with young people bring to this important civic event.


NCFY: Welcome to NCFY Voices, a podcast series from the Family and Youth Services Bureau. The Department of Housing and Urban Development requires that all areas with a homeless continuum of care, serving their homeless populations on one night in January, people in shelters must be counted every year. People not staying shelters must be counted every two years. 

The number of homeless citizens tallied has a great effect on how much HUD funding each area receives. Washington, D.C. performs its count annually, using a volunteer base, that on Wednesday, January 28th, included more than 350 people, up from 300 in 2014. Three NCFY staff members were among them. 

While all volunteers undergo training, few of us had years of experience navigating the streets in search of homeless people in need. But Dan Davis, street outreach coordinator for FYSB grantee Sasha Bruce Youthwork has just that. 

At 11:00 p.m., an hour into the point in time count, Davis stood at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Avenues reflecting on the role of street outreach workers in the effort. 

DAN DAVIS: Even though there is a great training that goes into the work, I just think that if, you know, most volunteers aren’t engaging to most young people. It’s one of those things you’re like, "All right. The effort to engage a homeless young person is on us." The homeless young person that we met earlier, you know, we wouldn’t have known that he was homeless if we didn’t stop and talk. And I think that's the big difference.

There are clear indicators of what an adult homeless individual looks like. For a young person, they could be dressed appropriately, you know, very fashion-forward, and still not have a place to go.  So the work requires us to be that voice, to be engaged and to try to create a relationship. To say, "You know, hold on.  Let me talk to you real quick." Or, "Hey, what’s up?" And that's what we’re learning. That’s why we do it. Because if we’re not going to do it, who else is going to do it? 

NCFY: He also compared the point-in-time exercise, which requires asking homeless people a series of questions to obtain better data, to a more traditional street outreach effort. 

DAN DAVIS: We would be much more active and not linger as much.  So, communication would be ... I want to say clearer. Because it would be like, I’m not really asking about a survey. All we want to know is where you're going to go tonight. If you don’t got a place to go tonight, how can we stay in contact if you don’t want to go with me right now? 

NCFY: At this point, Davis and his partner, a Sasha Bruce intern, found a pair of homeless adult men and began to ask them the questions. Like any good street outreach worker, Davis had a bag of toiletries and snacks to offer the men, something that the point-in-time organizers didn't require for other volunteers. But the supplies were very much appreciated.

DAN DAVIS: You guys need some toiletries like some toothbrushes and stuff like that? 

VOICE: Yeah. 

VOICE: Oh, man.  You’re putting out love. I know you had God in you.   

DAN DAVIS: Hold on, hold on, hold on. There you go. We got you? My man, brother love.

NCFY: Back on the street, Dan explained how reaching homeless youth requires a different approach than reaching homeless adults. 

DAN DAVIS: The adults really, they’re out on the street. Don’t really settle anyplace or really hunker down until after midnight. And that's very true for adults. But for young people, especially those that are under 18 that are still attached to like some school systems, they’re negotiating all day during school. And they’re doing their negotiation and kind of figuring out where they're going to be at immediately after. 

So about 4:00 o'clock, 5:00 o'clock, you know, if they don’t know where they’re going, you know, it’s onto the worst/best option they’ve got. So, that's kind of like the difference. A little bit of my frustration that we start, you know, we start tonight at 9:30 instead of starting, you know, running it all day. 

NCFY: Past midnight, having counted a handful of young people who qualified as homeless, we returned to our van to canvass the neighborhood once again.  Dan explained how to connect with homeless youth quickly and genuinely.

DAN DAVIS: I think you've got to put their safety first. So at its core is being mindful. So when you speak to somebody, you know, it’s making sure they see us first. And making sure that it’s very clear that, hey, I’m a friendly voice and I’m not trying to cause you harm or hurt. You want to get this person? Let me watch. We got your back. 

NCFY: At this point, Dan spotted a woman walking alone and his fellow volunteer got out to make sure she was okay. 

FEMALE VOICE: Yeah, thank you.

VOLUNTEER: All right. Have a good night. 

FEMALE VOICE: Thank you though.

VOLUNTEER: Yeah, absolutely.

DAN DAVIS: I think everyone knows that the general safety concern. Am I going to talk to this stranger?  What’s going to happen? So having the experience just allows you to have a little bit more confidence yourself and then get the engagement, being able to say, "All right.  Nothing bad is going to happen when I say my name is so and so.  And let me talk to you about XYZ."

One of the funniest things about street outreach is always telling folks that come out to volunteer or folks that are starting with us is that I’m literally asking folks to do the exact opposite of what they’ve been taught their whole life. You know, "Hey, I’m a stranger in a van giving out snacks.  Come get in and you'll be safe." It’s the exact oppisite – it’s like regardless of whoever you are, whatever your ability to function, you can tell that is a bad idea.

We’re bringing the relationship. We’re bringing the experience of being able to talk to one, especially talk to a young person, and create a natural easiness, create a natural relationship where, you know, a young person isn’t put on guard and they’re not kind of kidding, you know, flicking the switch to let me go into this is a stranger-danger situation. Someone asked me a whole bunch of information about my life that I don't know. Or a situation where it puts another volunteer at risk, where they’re trying to give you the impression that they don't know in a way, asking a lot of personal questions that could lead to a very different outcome. 

NCFY: In total, Dan and our team counted over a dozen homeless people, about half of which were young people who didn’t immediately identify as such. 

For more information on street outreach programs or the point in time count, visit the National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth, online at