Heather Antonini is Center for Human Services’ (CHS) Family Advocate in Outreach and part of the larger Stanislaus County Outreach and Engagement Team tasked with engaging people who are experiencing homelessness in our community. Her goal is to connect them to resources that help get them off the streets.

When I first took the position as a Family Advocate in Outreach, I had an image of myself similar to that of a cartoon character with a backpack and boots, out walking the streets. As it turns out, I wasn’t that far off.

Outreach is not a typical eight to five office job. Some days consist of being under a freeway overpass, hiking along the Tuolumne River or engaging with the homeless at Beard Brook Park. Engaging can mean sharing a meal with someone, saying hello with a friendly smile, sitting in someone’s tent as they express their defeat or even placing someone at a safe shelter for the night.

One of my first interactions was in September of 2018 with a young man named John, a 21-year-old who recently became homeless after his mother kicked him out for using marijuana.

John first landed at the Modesto Gospel Mission shelter, but it was not long before he found himself back on the streets without shelter and safety. New to the area, he found that being a young adult alone in a foreign town was terrifying.

He spent months working with community support agencies, while learning to overcome his addictions. He is now on his journey to recovery and has been clean since November 24, 2018.

John recently moved into Center for Human Services’ Pathways program, a supportive services program for young adults 18 to 24 years old. Residents can stay at Pathways for up to 24 months at no cost. During this time they receive weekly case management, substance use and mental health counseling, life skills training and many additional supportive services.

During the course of his homelessness, John was faced with many adverse situations: sleeping outside or in his friend’s vehicle with unpredictable weather, being bullied and assaulted, and trying to secure employment so that he could improve his living situation.

“I did everything in my power to keep my record clean,” he said. John is proud of his story and how he overcame his situation. “I want to tell my children one day, ‘be like me’ and not ‘don’t be like me.’”

John is just one of many youth experiencing homelessness in our community and an example of how partnerships, hard work and perseverance can pay off.

I continue my day-to-day work, regularly looking for ways we can help the homeless. For teens ages 13 to 17, the answer may be Hutton House, CHS’ shelter for teens. There, they can take hot showers, enjoy freshly prepared meals, or participate in group activities. For up to three weeks at a time, they can have a safe place to rest as we work to reconnect them to their natural system of support.

It isn’t easy work, but changing lives and building better futures rarely is. Every form of outreach and engagement has the potential to make an impact on someone.