A Day in the Life of an Outreach & Diversion Specialist

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Nicole, outreach & diversion specialist, shares about her day.

Describe your role. 

I am an in-person access point for people experiencing homelessness or near homelessness. I reach out to them either where they are (bridges, alleys, streets, parking lots) or am available for them to come in the office and seek services. Once contact is made, I can complete an assessment with individuals, getting them on the Coordinated Entry Prioritization List where they can hopefully quickly be pulled into a housing program and stabilize.  

What led you to become an Outreach & Diversion Specialist? 

While being a Housing Support Specialist, I started to see the need very quickly for an in-person link to the prioritization list. I was often approached by people asking how to complete an assessment, or if I knew of resources for necessities. Since I had a caseload at that time, I was referring them to our hotline to get on to the list. It didn’t feel right not being able to complete an assessment with them in the moment, and not being able to resource things with them—I hated sending people away, knowing they could potentially be frustrated with the process and do not get help. I planted the seed of the need for an outreach position in North Central Iowa and eventually the seed bloomed, and I applied for the position. 

Describe the population you work with. 

I work with people in our community in their lowest moments. I work with people that are typically unseen by society until they are deemed a nuisance by onlookers. People I serve have criminal backgrounds, evictions, addiction issues, mental health struggles, and/or are actively involved with DHS and the court systems. I foster relationships with single parents relocating after fleeing a domestically violent situation and women that are currently being trafficked. The population that I see in our office are generally systemically marginalized, underserved, and vulnerable. 

Do you speak with new people each day, or do you connect with the same people consistently? 

I see an equal mix of new people needing to complete assessments, people needing to reassess, and people just needing to resource with someone because navigating systems can be overwhelming.  

How do you start each day? 

Every day I come into the office, look at my to-do list from the day before and see what I need to prioritize. I look at my calendar and see what is on the agenda, prepare client folders so I’m ready when the walk-in hours start.  

What sort of things do you help clients with? 

My focus is assessing clients so they can be on the housing list and get pulled into a housing program. I also do what we call Progressive Engagement where we offer one time assistance for a household that may be behind on a month’s rent, behind on their utility bills, or are looking for a deposit or first month’s rent for a unit they are moving into. I help people apply for Section 8, energy assistance, vital documents, and other entitlements. If someone needs a list of landlords, so they can apply on their own, I can provide them with that and rental applications. I refer clients to the local food organizations, Supported Community Living programs, and can give a voucher for needed items like winter clothes and household items.  

Are there specific community partners or resources you work consistently with? 

I would be lost without our community partners, and I am so thankful we have such a large pool of people that want to serve this population. I work closely with the Housing Authority, Prairie Ridge, Iowa Dept of Public Health, 43 North Iowa, Catholic Charities, and even landlords to name just a few! Every partner is valued and necessary to support the people we serve.  

What is the most enjoyable part of your role? 

The most enjoyable part of my role is seeing someone that I met on the street or under a bridge go from being literally homeless with only a backpack to being pulled into a housing program, getting housed, and learning to navigate self-sustainability.  

What is the most stressful part of your role? 

The most stressful part of my role is the unseen numbers of people needing assistance. Someone to listen and help them walk through this dark time in their lives. For the one-time assistance, it is knowing that my failure to send in all the paperwork correctly could impact their housing if the landlords do not receive their payment as promised. Literal households rely on me and my tenacity to stay housed.  

Does work follow you home?  

I would be lying if I said no. I see the need in our community at every turn. People approach me out in public and ask for my card or how to make an appointment or to tell me about a friend they have that could really use our help. However, I have become incredibly good at leaving most of the things at work. I leave my work phone and computer behind. I set the boundaries with people currently on my caseload that I am available during business hours only, and that it could take up to 48 hours to follow up with a request. 

How do you unwind? 

This was the hardest question of them all! At the end of the day, I throw on some sweats and cuddle up with my wife and two Irish Doodles, an American Bully, and occasionally a couple cats will join in to watch a true crime documentary.  

Share the story of an impactful day or person you worked with. 

Recently I had a couple at my desk with a notice that they were being evicted and had about 18 hours to leave their home. They pawned some items to afford the transportation to our office and were very scared because they have a child and would be outside. When working through the diversion process, their plan was to leave their house with just the clothes on their back, wait in the park for their child to get out of school, and find a place in the park that was sheltered from the wind at least. This was unacceptable, so I spent the day trying to find somewhere for them to stay so no one would spend a wintry night in the park. I looked for host homes, hotel funds, and finally, thanks to strong community collaboration, I was able to get them into the little apartment that the Northern Lights shelter has! I called the couple and let them know it was theirs and I said I would bring my truck in the morning to load up anything that would fit in it. We loaded up, came to Mason City, and with an additional community collaboration, someone from Freedom In His Grace Ministries was able to take them back to pick up their child and a few other things that were outside on the curb. I am so thankful to work with an agency that has such a strong “people first” vision and mission, where I can meet people where they are and work with them to stabilize.