A multifaceted human-services agency in New Jersey recently partnered with its neighboring school of public health to gain a greater appreciation of the role of opioid addiction in an increase in panhandling in its community.
Yvette Molina, director of community services at Elijah's Promise in New Brunswick, N.J., says the concrete data obtained through on-site surveys conducted by a pair of Rutgers University students will put her agency in a favorable position to secure grant funding for services targeting the homeless.
With the opioid crisis and other factors causing a spike in demand for Elijah's Promise's services, Molina says her organization essentially needs to market its offerings to an expanded population, including some individuals from outside the immediate area and some of a middle-class background.
“We need to develop a trust relationship with them,” she says. “They're new to us and we're new to them.”
Surveys at meal time
Two Rutgers students, one from the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and the other from the School of Public Health, conducted in-person interviews (10 to 15 minutes) with individuals receiving lunch at the Elijah's Promise kitchen. “I was a new face there, so I wasn't sure how people might respond,” says second-year medical student Ajan Sivaramamoorthy. But individuals generally were quite receptive to participating, Sivaramamoorthy says.
Prior to the formal surveying, no one in the community had really connected the dots between a suddenly noticeable increase in panhandling and the opioid use problem. The survey participants replied in large numbers that they knew of individuals on the street affected by opioids, or at least a family member of someone affected.
Sivaramamoorthy says around 120 individuals were interviewed for the survey. The responses indicated the respected position that Elijah's Promise holds in the community, as a strong majority of respondents said that if they had a substance-related problem, they would go to Elijah's Promise before seeing even a medical professional. And these individuals actually could receive medical services from the human-services organization as well, as it now operates a medical clinic in addition to a variety of social services.
"We've learned over the years that you have to respect addiction as a disease," says Molina.
She says that as her organization has gained a clearer picture of the complex needs of its growing client base, it continues to look for ways to intervene early and help individuals navigate service systems. As one example, “We've been working with [Middlesex County] on an initiative in which vouchers are now available to place a homeless person in housing that isn't a shelter,” she says.