A Change of Perspective: Q & A with a Corporate Recruiter turned Social Worker
By Annaclaire Crumpton
September 29, 2019 at 10:30pm
On a crisp September Saturday, Emily Harms pulled a small cabinet down the upstairs hallway of the Downtown Fort Collins public library. Placing it in front of a private study room, she gently set down a sign bearing the logo of Outreach Fort Collins on the cabinet.
As one of the original three employees at Outreach Fort Collins, Emily has been working closely with individuals struggling with homelessness, downtown merchants, and the Fort Collins Police Department for three years now. Outreach Fort Collins is a non-profit street-based outreach program that helps make downtown a safe and welcoming place for everyone while connecting those experiencing homelessness to the services and support they need. I met Emily at the downtown library to discuss Outreach Fort Collins and the importance of perspective.
Q: So how did Outreach get started?
A: Outreach Fort Collins was put together by a group of stakeholders ranging from the Downtown Development Authority, the Downtown Business Association, the City of Fort Collins, Summit Stone Health Partners, Homeward Alliance, to U.C. health. So, a varied group of individuals wanted to respond to disruptive behaviors happening specifically in the downtown area. The group did some research on best practices and they found a team in Burlington, Vermont who work very closely with their police force on addressing these concerns. We were modeled very closely after that team.
It really started as a more creative approach with those experiencing homelessness. The idea was to be a resource for those individuals and a resource for the merchants in the downtown area as well.
Q: So how did you end up getting involved in Outreach Fort Collins?
A: Well haha, I spent actually spent eight years as a corporate recruiter. But then I began volunteering for Homeless Gear’s night outreach. So Homeless Gear (now Homeward Alliance) would go out three nights a week in a van with supplies- food, coats, hats, gloves, water and go find folks and get them what they needed. It was at that time that I felt a real pull on my heart to do this type of work. I knew that there was something there that I needed to be a part of. I had seen in a City Council meeting that the city was looking for a person to fill this third position- so I took a big leap of faith and left the corporate world to become a social worker.
Q: That’s a big shift- what was that like?
A: To be a part of something brand new that had never been done here before and to be able to really be a part of the steering of the ship was very exciting. I knew that the work we were going to be doing would be impactful.
To be honest with you…it wasn’t like we had a playbook, it hadn’t been done before. But it was great to be able to see something organically take form that we really couldn’t have predicted.
Q: So what does that playbook look like now?
A: Our policies and procedures, our hiring process, our ways of engagement- I mean there’s just so many different facets to what we do. A lot of people don’t realize, but the data we collect is very important for our stakeholders and to the city. Every interaction we have is detailed specifically. We have levels of escalation of behaviors so we track that in order to show the trends and the impact we are having. And also to have it to guide us as the program grows.
Q: Like the your annual summary report that displays the data you’ve collected into more digestible statistics…?
A: Yeah, what resonates with people can be data and graphs and charts or stories and it’s very hard to tell stories with data. It really is depending upon where people are coming from and how they respond to the work that we do. I look at it this way- you either come from a place of fear or a place of love. I know that sounds really basic but in three years of doing this, it’s what it comes down to. And we have to appreciate both of those areas where people are coming from.
Outreach Fort Collins, because we serve so many different stakeholders, we play a very Switzerland type ground because we do honestly understand the plight of merchants and we understand what those on the streets are dealing with on a daily basis as well. So we play a very middle of the road role where we want to be able to help both sides in a very effective and intentional way.
Q: So what’s the most challenging part about balancing that?
A: On both sides, people don’t always really know what they think about the other “side”. They have an idea, or they might feel a certain way already but maybe giving them a different perspective on how that individual may feel affects how we view or do not view people. So having conversations on both sides.
A big part of our mission is creating a safe and welcoming place for all in the downtown community. So, being cognizant of what that actually means - it’s being able to address different entities of the community in a specific way to hopefully create that community where everyone is welcome. And this place, the Fort Collins Library, is the last real place that everybody can kind of just come and be.
Q: So you were talking about helping people to understand perspectives, what might you say from someone that is coming from that place of fear?
A: I would say that it’s an onion. It’s multi-layered and in my estimation, the reason why it is like that is that we are all individuals. We all have histories and stories and fabric that make us different. So, I think the easy way is to throw that blanket over the community of homelessness and place those labels or judgments. But it’s just not that simple. It’s much more complicated.
It would be great if we had five simple steps because we all want things to be easy, right? We all want to have that roadmap or that playbook but it just doesn’t work that way because we all have different needs, we all have different life experiences, we all have different challenges. So I think we have to take a broader look, a more compassionate look. Oftentimes we will just say the easiest thing to do is to smile, make eye contact and say hello. That can go millions of miles with people. We all want to know that we are visible, that we are here.
Q: So how do you think community perception of those experiencing homelessness shape the issue?
A: I think Fort Collins is a very compassionate community. But like with anything there is always room for improvement and we have some ways to go on conversations. And I think really the only true key to having effective conversations and subsequent actions is just to really have a different perspective on conditions.
Q: Has there been a particular case or moment that has struck you while you’re working?
A: They happen every day for me. I am inspired by the resilience of those we serve on our streets. They are the most at the moment living individuals. Their timeline is this moment, sometimes it’s the day, sometimes it’s tomorrow but their timelines get smaller and smaller when you think about next week, certainly a year from now or five years from now. They inspire me what they live through- the stories that I have heard. I mean fall seven, get up eight. I am inspired every day and that’s part of the reason I got into this.
Q: So…what would you say is the biggest challenge in your job?
A: I would say knowing that ultimately, it’s not about what I feel is best for people. For me personally, that has been a challenge. What I believe is best for people is not what’s best for people…what’s best for people is what they think is best for them- no matter what I think.
Q: So what would you say is the most rewarding part?
A: Meeting the people and building those relationships without a doubt for me. I learn more about myself through them, they learn more about me. Making people laugh too. Laughter is universal; it is the extinguisher of barrier. Oftentimes, there’s just not a whole lot to laugh about. So it’s great to be able to get a smile and at that moment have them think about something that brings them joy and laughter.
Q: With all the successes and growth Outreach has seen in 3 years, what do you think the next three years look like?
A: I always knew that there was no way we could fail with what we were trying to do. I don’t like to say we’ve been successful, I think we have been impactful because the need is so great. Where we might be in three years is expanded outside the downtown community. And that’s something that we have been approached about.
Right now, we want to continue doing what we are doing down here and doing it well. In order to expand, we would have to be able to replicate exactly what we have created here to be successful while still not ever compromising the strong foundation we have already built.