Two Decades of Howard Center Outreach Services

headshot of kelly deforge wearing glasses

Howard Center Outreach Services meeting people where they are at for over two decades

Commentary by Kelly Deforge

With the state’s expanded motel program for people experiencing homelessness on temporary extension, overdose rates reaching new record highs, and so many recent news stories about violence and behavioral issues in public spaces, concerns about impacts on affected individuals’ wellbeing and the community are understandably running high.

Amid these concerns, it’s been gratifying to see movement at the state toward funding innovative approaches like mental health urgent care centers and system-wide mobile crisis outreach programs. Howard Center has partnered with other Designated Agencies statewide and with Community Health Centers of Burlington and the University of Vermont Medical Center locally and submitted proposals to the state to implement both of these models. With funding secured we look forward to bringing them on-line soon.

At Howard Center, we know the value of on-the-ground support because our Street Outreach Team has been providing it in Burlington for 24 years. When properly resourced, our program has been transformative because we have established relationships with people upstream from hospital emergency departments and police interventions. Often, we have been able to address issues faced by individuals before those issues become critical. Street Outreach, founded to help people in the city center and adjacent areas access social services and healthcare and to intervene instead of police with trusted clinically skilled individuals who are integrated within a treatment focused and mission driven organization when someone is experiencing a mental health issue, the team today has five members who start most days at 8 a.m., checking on people who are out and about early or have slept outdoors.

Police dispatch and officers on the street know our team and contact them when situations require a social services intervention rather than a police response, or when a co-response is more likely to best meet an individual’s needs. More often, the relationships team members build over time with people in the community create a high level of trust and familiarity, so people approach team members proactively when they need support, and business owners and office workers call when they have questions. As one team member succinctly put it, “people tend to open up pretty quickly once they understand who we are.”

The team helps people with all kinds of needs. Members help people make appointments for mental health counseling and medical services, and they accompany those who are anxious about using facility-based services to their appointments. Another crucial part of the team’s work is providing basic needs like cell phone minutes, help with transportation, and survival gear like sleeping bags and boots. And team members carry overdose reversal medication, administering it several times in recent months.

Often, the people Street Outreach help have multiple problems. “Maybe someone has a relationship conflict,“ said a team member, “and that leads to homelessness first, then substance use, then to mental health issues. And things just compound for them.” The team works to interrupt this escalation by addressing underlying issues and avoiding worsening problems that can end in a medical emergency, arrest, or incarceration. And the approach works. The team helps about 1,000 people every year, and the vast majority remain stable and avoid the most tragic outcomes. Most importantly and almost

universally, the individuals we help report being listened to and treated with respect and care. It is no surprise then that Howard Center’s Street Outreach Team has been asked to consult with groups across the country and in Canada, resulting in replication of the outreach team concept in several other cities.

The success of the Street Outreach Team inspired Howard Center’s Community Outreach Team in 2017 in partnership with several local municipalities. The team’s work is similar as it often prevents a police response for social service needs and provides needed resources and a bridge to services and treatment. The team began working in six communities initially and is now offering support in nine communities throughout Chittenden County (Colchester, Essex, Hinesburg, Milton, Richmond, Shelburne, South Burlington, Williston, Winooski). What a great example of shared investment in the well-being of our communities serving some of our most vulnerable neighbors.

In the last few years our clinicians have also partnered with the Vermont State Police to provide mental health crisis assessment, de-escalation, consultation, and support. Through this partnership, people who otherwise may have entered the criminal justice system are instead connected to the mental health and social services supports they need.

After more than two decades experience in outreach work, and with its fundamental model based on building relationships and trust with the community it serves, Howard Center’s outreach programs continue to have an important role in helping people in Burlington’s downtown and in communities throughout Chittenden County. As board members and community members we are proud to say that when we say “Help is here” at Howard Center “here” is often where our friends and neighbors need help – in the community.

Kelly Deforge is a Senior Loan Originator with Union Bank, Vice President of Howard Center’s Board of Trustees, and lives in Essex.