Homeless outreach brings Volunteers of America’s resources to the streets

Story and audio slideshow by LAURA SCHMITZ

Go on a ride-along with the Homeless Outreach Team.

When Buddy Tymczyszyn and Kimberly Bell go to work each day, they don’t need to put on fancy clothes or stare at a computer screen. They don’t need to worry about office politics. But, during the winter, they definitely can’t leave home without their gloves.

Just west of the hubbub of downtown Salt Lake City rests their quaint work center, housing a program that actively pursues a population with which few are familiar.

Utah’s arm of Volunteers of America facilitates a Homeless Outreach Program that is constantly ready for action, equipped with a van-full of necessities, including food, water, beanies and blankets.

A national, nonprofit organization, VOA has a presence in 44 states and employs a range of paid staff, who work to tackle issues such as homelessness and drug addiction.

Tymczyszyn, 22, and Bell, 24, join forces to make up the outreach team. Together, the two pack up a van with supplies each morning to scan the streets of the west side for homeless people in need.

“We do a lot of driving,” Tymczyszyn said of his 40-hours-per-week job in the field.

“Part of [the program] is to get people socks, jackets and blankets — stuff to keep them warm and safe on the streets,” he said. “But the heart of it underneath is to help them with any kind of deeper, underlying issues that may be keeping them out there.”

Both began their posts with a “heart” for the homeless population.

“None of us really deserve to be where we’re at,” Bell said. “Those of us that have enough money or family support to be able to stay in a warm place and have good food, it’s not because we did anything to deserve it.”

The team documents every shoe, scarf and bag of chips they give out in order to ensure that VOA receives adequate donations and its clients — the homeless people they serve — are given proper financial support.

VOA’s donations come largely from the Utah Food Bank and individual donors. Clients will receive state funding based in part on the amount of services they receive from the organization.

As Tymczyszyn and Bell traverse alleys and fields, searching for potential clients, they will often discover vacant tents, blankets or sleeping bags — evidence of a shelter.

“Some are remarkably easy to find,” Tymczyszyn said. “They follow the same, routine pattern every day.”

If the team reaches a “home” of someone who is not there, they will “water bomb” or “sock bomb” the residence, leaving a water bottle or pair of socks with VOA’s business card attached.

“It helps give us a good name to them, so the next time we see them, they can recognize us or they can just give us a call from that number,” Bell said.

During outreach missions, Bell and Tymczyszyn said clients’ reaction to them depends on their approach.

“A lot of times it takes meeting someone five or 10 times before they trust you enough to talk to you. The next step is learning their name, then the step after that is having them take a pair of socks or a bottle of water from you,” Tymczyszyn said. “Every little step of the way is a success.”

Cliff Thurber, 54, has made the streets of Salt Lake City his home for several years. A regular client of VOA, he is an example of the established trust its staff strive to build, as he candidly spoke with Tymczyszyn and Bell like old friends.

“They’ve given me food and good [conversation] and comforting thoughts, so that’s been helpful,” Thurber said of the two.

Thurber moved from Provo to Salt Lake City, seeking a steadier income. He now sells the Salt Lake Street News, a newspaper put out by the Salt Lake City Mission. The nonprofit publication is specifically geared to help people experiencing poverty and homelessness.

“I earn 50 cents a paper,” Thurber said. “Once I sell them, I can turn more money back in and get more papers to sell. I buy them for 50 cents and sell them for a dollar — sometimes people donate more. It’s really coming along.”

Thurber said he does his best to remain law-abiding in his lifestyle.

“Police have never really hassled me,” Thurber said. “I’ve tried to stay above the law and tried to not do anything [illegal] — not be drunk in public places or anything like that. That’s not good,” he said with a laugh.

Though several clients are experiencing homelessness because of job loss or negative life circumstances, some come to VOA with needs arising from addictions.

One frequent client, Kevin Hansen, openly said he was on the streets because of a history of alcoholism.

“I just love alcohol,” Hansen said, describing what he believes to be the ultimate reason for his homelessness.

His past “hurts sometimes, but sometimes it doesn’t.”

Bell and Tymcyzcyzn both agreed their job can be emotionally taxing as they build relationships with their clients and struggle with them through their situations.

“Sometimes, I want to make people’s decisions for them,” Bell said. “Some of our clients are really intoxicated all the time. They drink a lot constantly, and it’s a way for them to drown their pain, but they’re slowly killing themselves — I just want to make them stop [for their own good].”

One goal of the homeless outreach team is an initiative they call harm-reduction. Tymczyszyn said the goal of harm-reduction is to try to get clients into a better situation immediately, working toward the deeper-rooted problems later.

The team provides needle-cleaning kits and safer methods of using cocaine in order to minimize the adverse consequences of the drugs while coming out of addiction.

“If they’re going to use needle drugs, how can they clean their needle to do it safely? If they’re going to sleep outside on the street that night no matter what, how can we try to help them stay warm in the process?” Tymczyszyn said.

Bell said that though she sometimes feels “helpless” because of the negative habitual cycles some clients fall into, she recognizes that any change is “ultimately their choice.”

Despite challenges that come with the territory, Bell said her job is rewarding.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I don’t want to live too far removed from the tragedy that exists,” she said. “I don’t just want to live in ignorance, because ignorance is bliss, but our world isn’t a blissful place.”

This year marks VOA Utah’s 25th anniversary. According to its website, it boasts about 140 paid, professional staff who serve more than 10,000 people throughout the state each year.

“Substance abuse and homelessness are the main areas of focus in Utah,” said Zach Bale, director of external relations for VOA Utah. “We go where we’re the most needed, and do what needs to be done.”

The homeless outreach team is in the field 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday – Friday.

“It’s the most incredible job in the world — I can’t believe I get paid for it,” Bell said.