Outreach workers go afield to provide support

David Tucker, left, and Brad Cook are homeless outreach workers with Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center. Both were preparing to deliver water to homeless campers in August along the Kansas River.

They spend their days looking for the homeless in the Lawrence community.

And Bert Nash homeless outreach workers David Tucker and Brad Cook are often the only link between the chronically homeless and desperately needed services.

“For some of them (the homeless), we’re the only people they communicate with,” Cook said.

On any particular day, they visit area homeless shelters and nonprofits, walk downtown or visit area homeless camping sites.

Making the rounds

As temperatures hit triple digits on a recent day, Cook, 31, and Tucker, 30, delivered bottled water to homeless people camping in area woods.

While their ultimate goal is finding permanent housing for homeless people, a lack of resources and other obstacles often leave the workers to focus on immediate basic needs that include clothing, food, transportation and sleeping bags in the winter months.

The main question they ask their clients, Tucker said, is “What is it you need help with?”

The two look more like members of a heavy metal band than social workers — both sport scraggly beards and long hair.

“It has become an office joke that we should form a metal band because so many people have asked if we were in one,” Tucker said.

But it’s that relaxed appearance that makes them more approachable, they say. Tucker is large, with a calm demeanor. Cook is smaller and energetic.

“A lot of them recognize us,” said Tucker, adding that one of their big challenges is gaining the trust of their clients, which can take time.

Quality of life

It starts when Tucker or Cook hear about a “new guy” on the streets. Sometimes other homeless people will tell them, or they’ll see someone new at a campsite or downtown.

Often, initial offers to help are declined.

“Sometimes there’s a real cooling-off period before they ask for help,” Tucker said. They never force services on anyone, but hope frequent meetings lead to a chance to help.

“It really just depends where they’re at,” Tucker said.

The outreach team, which includes two other Bert Nash workers, is primarily funded by the city of Lawrence, which has provided about $150,000 annually since 2005 for the team.

City Manager Dave Corliss said it’s money well-spent, though potential cost savings the team provides — in the form of reducing criminal justice and other costs — is difficult to quantify.

“The first hope is that (the program) improves the quality of life,” Corliss said. “It’s hard to put a price tag on that.”

Need increasing

Probably as much as anyone in Lawrence, Tucker and Cook have a strong sense of homelessness trends in the community.

The two say the need for services for an increasing homeless population rises daily, and they receive calls all day long from agencies referring more people to their program.

“We’re just busier than we used to be,” Cook said. When downtown after hours, they’re sure to run into a client who needs help. “Your job doesn’t really stop.”

Their caseload numbers fluctuate with the seasons; they provide more services in the colder months, fewer in the summer as the area homeless head to area woods to camp. In the past three months, the team has provided services to about 250 homeless people in Lawrence.

Many of their clients cycle through homelessness, Cook said. They secure housing but may lose it for many of the same reasons they initially became homeless: mental illness, drug addiction, job loss.

Knowing they can only do so much is the most frustrating part of their work.

“A lack of resources can be really crushing. It’s hard to keep doing day after day,” Tucker said. The constant struggle of the area’s homeless gives the workers a new perspective — as they see “regular” people who for one reason or another find themselves homeless for the first time.

“They lack a permanent home. Other than that, they’re just people,” Tucker said.

‘Everybody needs a chance’

Both Kansas University graduates, Cook has been with the team for five years, Tucker for three. They entered social work for the obvious reason: helping others.

“I feel like everybody needs a chance,” said Tucker, who worked in other jobs before entering social work. He said volunteering in the community drew him to the work.

Cook, motivated by a “service to others,” has nine years in the field.

In those years, the two have learned that some of the people they work with might never escape homelessness. And in their line of work, the two have been exposed to a world that many in Lawrence have no idea exists.

Alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, mental illness and death are all common experiences in this world.

“It’s a really rough life,” Tucker said.