The Nonprofit's Guide to Homelessness Training

Emmaus social worker Rita Scrimenti found that a national training session on interacting with the homeless that she attended a few months ago at Erie County Blasco Library was extremely helpful in dealing with the low-income urban population that she serves. So helpful, in fact, that she wanted Emmaus Ministries and as many Erie non-profits as possible exposed to the “new insights, skills, and techniques” that she learned.

“It occurred to me at the time,” Rita continued, “that a resource of this magnitude could be a welcome and enriching opportunity for all Emmaus staff and many Soup Kitchen volunteers.” So she worked with Lakeshore Community Services and the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul to bring “The Nonprofit’s Guide to Homelessness Training” given by Ryan Dowd back to Erie.

The Dowd trainings session, typically given to librarians who often interact with patrons experiencing homelessness, was adapted for the needs of a broader range of non-profits and presented in Erie in April. All of the Emmaus staff and many volunteers attended the two-day training sessions.

The goal of the training is to encourage people who regularly engage with people experiencing extreme poverty to “reduce problems/conflict and be inclusive” to all. The training began with an exploration of “cultural upbringing differences,” ways that people who grow up in financially-secure neighborhoods are granted more access to better education, resources, and opportunities that in turn change the “norms” for ways in which culture expects one will act, talk, think, and participate in society.

“One thing I learned from the training that is really sticking with me when I am interacting with guests at the kitchen,” said Breanna Mekuly, Emmaus staff member, “is that the way I behave can directly relate to the way others behave. For example, if I approach a guest aggressively, declaring ‘No phones are allowed in the soup kitchen!’ the guest will most likely respond with defensiveness, aggression, or contempt. Yet if I approach the same guest by introducing myself, asking their name, asking how they are doing today, and then gently reminding them we ask for phones to be put away during their time at the soup kitchen so everyone can eat in peace, the guest will most likely respond with a willingness to listen. The difference is that in one case I’m demanding rules and in the other, I’m building a relationship.”

Since the training, many staff and volunteers have expressed thankfulness for the opportunity to learn how to engage more empathically with our guests. “We’ve received thank you notes and phone calls from volunteers,” said Rita, “expressing gratitude for hosting the training.”

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Pictured: Emmaus volunteers Ray and Bruce role playing with the guidance of Ryan Dowd (right); below: Rita Scrimenti, Emmaus staff member