Street Outreach Stories:

Dustin Louthen & Jason DeZarn

We recently had the pleasure of talking with Dustin Louthen and Jason DeZarn, street outreach partners who work together at the Hope Center, about the street outreach work they do in our community. From the moment you meet and start talking to these two, it becomes clear just how passionate they are about what they do and also how genuinely good at it they are. We got to talk about their backgrounds, how they got started in this work, and why it matters to them. Below is our conversation. 

1. Tell me a little bit about yourself—personal, professional, or anything else you’d like to share about who you are. How did you get involved with street outreach?

Dustin: I am in recovery—it’ll be four years this year. I started out coming through the Recovery Program for Men here at the Hope Center in 2018. Before that, I’d been on the streets and stayed in shelters. So for me, I was comfortable in this kind of work. I stayed after the program as a peer mentor here, got my specialist certificate, then went to work at New Vista. I worked on their street outreach team, then immediately applied for the street outreach position here at the Hope Center when I saw it open up. 

It’s pretty awesome. I enjoy what I do every day. I always kind of ran around on the streets, lower class neighborhoods all over the United States, got into trouble a lot growing up—so for me, this was a way to stay in the streets. My comfort level is good there. I’d much rather be there than anywhere else, it’s just really easy for me to be relatable. I’m not a buttoned up khakis kind of guy. For me, it clicked, it’s easy, I get to meet all different kinds of people from all different walks of life, and it’s just awesome—I enjoy every day of it. 

I’m a couple years out on my bachelor’s for social work. I’m getting ready to transfer to Eastern Kentucky University. I just want to be able to help people like me. Let them know it doesn’t make a difference what you look like, what your past is, or what your criminal record is. I never would have thought four years ago, with my background, that I’d be working for this program, getting my bachelor’s soon, all that. This work, I am just completely engrossed by it all. 

Jason: I came here in 2017 and have a similar background. I came through the program here too. I literally changed everything inside and out when I became sober, just trying to do something different compared to how I used to be. That’s really molded me into being open-minded and understanding of people’s mental illnesses and the way they recover, especially in the homeless population. At one point, I became homeless, and going through everything I went through humbled me and helps me build rapport with people now. It’s overwhelming sometimes because people aren’t always receptive to the help we offer, but we’ve also had a lot of successes as well.

2. What does a day in street outreach work look like? 

Dustin: We work with the Office of Homelessness Prevention and Intervention (OHPI), and what will happen is people in the community who have seen somebody camped out somewhere might email their council member, who emails OHPI, who emails us. What we do then is make initial contact with the individual. We do a basic once over on what immediate needs need to be met right then, whether that’s referring them to a shelter, or whatever other services, paramedics, anything they need immediately. Once we get through that, we get a feel for what other resources they need and make referrals out to other local agencies that do mental health work, substance abuse work, or whatever else. We work really closely with all these programs. Basically we just try to hook them up with whatever they may need immediately, as well as to get that ball rolling on other future needs and get case workers out to help with those things. 

We’re the link between people and the services in town. A lot of people, with so much going on—being homeless, having severe addictions—they aren’t able to go and search out any of this stuff on their own. And I know when I was out there like that, the last thing I wanted to do was go somewhere where someone was going to tell me what to do. So I just try to present the idea that if this is what they want to do, I can help them do this. And if that’s not what they want to do, that’s cool too, but I’m gonna keep bugging them until they do want to do it, you know? They get used to seeing me. 

I’ve been doing this for about three years, and it’s taken me two solid years to get the community in the area I serve to where they don’t associate a negative experience with me. And that’s really important to me, because how am I going to get someone to want to deal with me if that’s how they see me? On my days off, I’m in the same area, even when I’m not at work. People in the community, including those experiencing homelessness, are consistently seeing me. To me, that’s what it’s supposed to be, a community helping people, not just “we’ve got some services, here you go.”

Jason: He’s spot on. There’s a lot of active addiction, and

And actually the people who are chronically homeless are sometimes the most receptive. Dustin has been doing this longer than I have. I’ve learned a lot from him.

3. Are there any success stories from your work that you’d like to share? 

Jason: My favorite one is James Rice (pseudonym). We ran into a situation where we’d gotten him into a hotel program but he wouldn’t stay there, wouldn’t stay still. We took it upon ourselves to figure out what would get him to stay put, because if he would stay put, we could get the ball rolling on a long-term solution. So we asked him what he needed, and it was cigarettes and coffee. We were like, if we got you cigarettes and coffee, would you stay put? Because I think about myself, especially in active addiction, and what I would need to be able to stay put and then start that road to recovery. And so we got him a coffee pot, coffee, and cigarettes. And that led to us being able to get him social security and a permanent housing voucher. I’ve never seen him smile until that last day, when I went to check on him, and he fist bumped me. His whole demeanor had changed. This guy just had a long white beard, just kept to himself. But when he did that, it was all worth it. 

Dustin: Mine is a guy called Richard Davis (pseudonym). He didn’t really talk much. We got him into a shelter and he ended up having a stroke while he was there. He didn’t like anybody, but I could deal with him. So I took him to all his doctor’s appointments for the longest amount of time. Got through all that with him, then we finally got him his own spot—it was pretty cool. It had been 16 years since he’d had his own keys, and I was there when he signed his lease. He didn’t have any furniture, he said I don’t care. And I was there for that moment. 

4. Why is street outreach important? What is the value of the work you do? 

Dustin: It’s definitely a niche kind of job. It’s not for everybody. A lot of these people don’t even have places to go at all. Even when there’s services, there’s so many different barriers that come into play when you think about the regular day of somebody who is homeless. If they don’t have an outlet to plug an alarm clock into, a phone, no record of time—how can you expect them to be on schedule? If you add substance use or mental health issues onto that, that makes it twice as hard. So these people may be trying as best as they possibly can, and all I can do is be the best I possibly can for that person in that situation, to try to accommodate their needs. 

We’re doing the best we can. And not everybody’s going to want our help. And that’s ok. There’s nothing we can do about that. We have to take the fifty losses to get the fifty-first win, you know what I mean? That’s exactly what it is. You have to swing fifty times and miss to get one. Persistence. 

5. What is one thing you wish Lexington community members knew about street outreach work and about homelessness?

Jason: Get educated, understand why it happens. For a lot of people not close to this work, who don’t know anyone homeless, it’s easy to be judgemental. But it can happen to anybody, so that’s one of the main things to remember. 

Dustin: Communities work together. There’s only ten outreach workers in the whole city. Instead of pointing fingers, say, what can I do to help? What can I do to help?

Jason: It’s about giving back. If we’ve learned anything here in the program, in our work, that’s it. 

Dustin: Even a little help is better than no help. Donate some money. Start somewhere. Remember, that’s somebody’s son or daughter, somebody’s mom or dad. 

Get involved with LEH by joining the Continuum of Care today. Partnership is free and highly encouraged for any organization or person working in the field of human services. You can also contact one of our many partners to ask about opportunities to get involved. Learn more on our website or by following us on social media @lexendhomelessness.