Outreach programs are those that involve bringing services directly to where people are. Such programs have been developed because getting useful information, programs services and supplies that enhance safety to current or potential users can be problematic. This is particularly the case if the expectation is that one must actually go to the provider in question to get what one needs. Barriers, both personal and structural can prevent this from happening, particularly for people who are homeless. For instance, stigma, ill health, lack of money and transportation may make it difficult or unlikely that someone can get to an agency. This becomes even more problematic if a person is not aware that a service or program exists in the first place.
Outreach, when coupled with access to services, creates community linkages at both the client and systemic level. At the client level, it ensures referral to services that address problem substance use and other related health and basic needs. Systemically, it increases collaboration and coordination among service providers to maximize the use of limited resources and ensure the provision of multidisciplinary services to address the needs of individuals and their families. Potential outreach settings may include safe houses, employee assistance programs, health centres, community centres, prisons, mental health facilities, physicians' offices and community educational programs.
Outreach services for people with substance use problems typically involves meeting clients in their own environments. Outreach services provided through drop-in programs, mobile treatment services and street contacts, can increase access to services by providing flexible hours of operation in accessible locations. Outreach is most effective when trust is established and maintained over multiple brief sessions. Activities include dissemination of health information, education on harm reduction strategies, provision of information on community-based resources, identification of strategies for accessing services, and when needed, accompanying clients to preliminary appointments.
Early intervention and outreach strategies require an understanding of the circumstances and needs of each client in order to adapt services and include relevant supports. The goal is to reduce problem substance use as well as enhance overall health and social functioning. Outreach workers engage people in a personalized assessment of their own risk behaviours, and in realistic discussions of resources available to support sustainable changes. Outreach can promote life skills, including personal development, parenting, employment readiness, budgeting, self-esteem, nutrition, stress management, assertiveness and interpersonal relationships.
Peer outreach involves the use of members of the targeted community as outreach workers. For instance, if someone were needed to work with homeless youth, members of this group would be hired to do the work. This approach is seen to be effective because such persons bring a wealth of personal experience to their work. Peers consider their views and information trustworthy.
Service providers that are familiar with the range of services and programs available in the community and knowledgeable about how they may be accessed are invaluable to individuals that require assistance for their substance use problems. Evidence shows that service agreements, related to interagency referral and treatment protocols, are helpful mechanisms for increasing collaboration and coordination among service providers and providing better access to services.
Photo credit: Justin S. Campbell