Substance abuse counselor and Outreach Coordinator for Street Angels
When people with mental health and substance use disorders lose their homes and find themselves unsheltered and on the street, recovery becomes difficult, if not impossible. Dan Grellinger talks about the work of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s, Street Angels. Street Angels is a program whose small staff and volunteers travel throughout Milwaukee County providing hot meals, clothing, blankets, tents, NARCAN, caring conversations, and HOPE to those who are experiencing street homelessness. Dan is a substance abuse counselor and Outreach Coordinator for Street Angels. Find out more about Street Angels and how to help at https://www.streetangelsmke.org.
[Jaunty Guitar Music]
Mike: Welcome everybody, this is Avoiding the Addiction Affliction, brought to you by the Kenosha County Substance Abuse Coalition. I'm Mike McGowan. You know here we've had a lot of conversations about substance abuse, and we've also had conversations about people and programs that make a difference in our communities.
Today, we're really lucky to be able to do both in one conversation. My guest is Dan Grellinger, outreach coordinator for the Street Angels of Milwaukee. Welcome, Dan.
Dan: Hello. Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.
Mike: Well, this is an easy first question; tell us what Street Angels are.
Dan: Street Angels is a mobile outreach program that delivers a meal and some supplies to those experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Milwaukee County.
The outreach program uses a hot meal three nights a week as a tool connect with people, establish a relationship, and ultimately connect them with resources to move them off the street. It should be noted that there's different types of homelessness. The Street Angels primarily serve category one homelessness as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, "HUD".
We essentially serve those living outside, living in vehicles, living in abandoned buildings or other places, not meant for habitation.
Mike: Wow. Okay, and so you're out on the street how many times a week?
Dan: Three nights a week. We go out Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday nights.
Mike: Okay. Now, for those of you living in other parts of the country and world, it's winter here in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the last couple nights, Dan, it's been well below zero. Where do you find the folks that you're talking to?
Dan: Most of the people that we serve in winter, we also served in fall and summer. We do find new people in winter. To find new people, we get referrals from other agencies, we have people calling to self-refer themselves, and there are people that we discover living on the streets, you know, during our normal outreach.
In addition, we got citizens of Milwaukee who call regularly and say they saw a person here or there, looks like they're experiencing homelessness, and we follow up on that.
Mike: It's just gotta be heartbreaking to come across somebody on the street when it's 10 below zero.
Dan: It is. Last night we had a person sleeping in a bus stop who was crying, who was, you know, at their wits end. Thankfully we were able to get them into a warming center, but it's not easy hearing some of the stories of these people.
Mike: Yeah. It used to be, when I was doing some of this long, long ago, there were warming vents occasionally downtown, right? Where warmer air would come up from underground. Am I remembering that right?
Dan: That's correct. In large part, the city has prevented people from being on those grates or being near those vents. So we don't really see that too much anymore, they're usually fenced or they're not expelling hot air or warm air or whatever it might be.
Mike: Okay, I wanna focus a little bit on the unsheltered and substance use. You've been doing this a while now, right? Since 2000-?
Dan: The Street Angels has been in existence since 2015. I think I started volunteering in 2016, and then in June of last year I became a full-time employee.
Mike: So what is your, you know, six/seven years experience now tell you about the connection between substance use and the unsheltered?
Dan: The Street Angels are relatively new to addressing substance abuse issues in the homeless population. It's not hard to see that most people experiencing unsheltered homelessness are also struggling with substance abuse issues as a means of coping with trauma. This has kind of forced the Street Angels to address substance abuse issues and become involved in that aspect.
We certainly have people who are struggling with mental illness without substance abuse. And finally, as you would expect, we have people with co-occurring disorders.
Mike: Well, I was just gonna ask that because I would expect that you would see all of the above, right?
Dan: That's correct. We see all of the above.
Mike: And you're a substance abuse counselor, which is, I think, incredibly fortunate. Because you know what you're looking at. What are you running into, what drugs are you running into?
Dan: Well, like I said, we're relatively new to addressing substance abuse and having conversations about what types of drugs people are using, but we certainly hear from people and we certainly support regular users of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and alcoholism, it's still certainly out there and doesn't seem to be going away in our community?
Mike: Well, why would it, right? We're Milwaukee.
Mike: Well, when you say you support people, how?
Dan: Well, we support people by basically befriending them. We get to know 'em, we understand their needs and we try and point them in the right direction or connect them to the right agencies or people to get their issues resolved.
Mike: How receptive are they?
Dan: It's the exception that people don't engage with us and continue to not engage with us. Usually if you give somebody a hot meal three nights a week, eventually they're gonna crack a smile, eventually they're gonna open up, eventually they're gonna say hi. But we do occasionally find somebody that does not wanna engage with us and we respect that.
Mike: Yeah. So when you say a hot meal, are you carrying that in your vehicle and then just, you know, sit with them while they eat it?
Dan: We don't sit with them while we eat it. We do deliver a hot meal prepared in a commercial kitchen by a chef. It usually contains a hot lunch. Our route is based on time, so people know to be at a certain space at a certain time. We hand them a meal, anything else they need in addition to food, and we're usually on our way. We have one bus that serves the north side of Milwaukee, and we have one bus that serves the south side of Milwaukee. And I think last night in total we did probably 40 or 50 meals to people living outside. And last night was what? Single degrees, right? So some of them are in vehicles, some of them are in shacks, some of them are in other kinds of wind breaks, but they're all living outside.
Mike: So you made 40 to 50 contacts last night in Milwaukee when it's close to zero?
Dan: That's correct.
Mike: You must know where to go.
Dan: By and large, we know where to go, yes.
Mike: So you see some of the same people over and over and over again?
Dan: Yep, that's correct. You know, the thing that was most surprising to me when I first started doing this work was that the homeless population is very transient. Some people we see for a day, some people we see for a week, some people we see for a month. We have a couple out there now who's living in a shack that we've basically been delivering a meal to for over four years.
Dan: And I also wanted to mention too, a lot of people don't - and this kind of emphasizes the transient nature - most of the people that we meet on the street, we lose touch with ultimately. Most of the people don't call and say, hey, I made it into a house, all of a sudden they're just not there, right? So by and large, the overwhelming majority of the people that we meet on the street, we ultimately lose touch with..
Mike: Well, you know, I came across your organization through an article in I think Urban Milwaukee, and it was tied to some of the drugs that are being used and overdose deaths. So you must wonder when you lose track of somebody, if they've actually found a home or if they're in the medical examiner's basement.
Dan: Yep, that's correct. We do try and keep track of people as best we can, but it's very difficult to track people once they've kind of gotten back on their feet. In terms of overdose deaths, we just recently started tracking that information because we're starting to get a lot of 'em. In 2022, we had eight people that we knew and served regularly that are no longer with us because of overdose.
Mike: I think in our count in Milwaukee County, we set a record in the first part of 2022. I think a little over 340 people died of overdoses, more than car accidents now, right?
Dan: I believe so. It certainly is a big problem.
Mike: Well, have you ever run into people actively using?
Dan: We have, we've interrupted people while they're using.
Mike: Drinking? Injecting? Smoking?
Dan: Yep. All of the above.
Mike: And this may seem like a weird question, but I'll ask it anyway. So, if you come in the middle of somebody actively using, how do you approach that? Do you just do your normal thing? Do you back off and allow them to finish or what?
Dan: Yeah. I mean, we kind of back off and let them, do they want to engage? Do they not want to engage? I mean, we kind of leave it up to them. But it happens occasionally. Some people are okay with it, some people aren't right? Some people are ashamed. Some people just accept it and accept the meal that we're delivering.
Mike: When you say you support them, do you also have in your vehicles, do you carry needles, you know, clean needles or Narcan or -?
Dan: We do hand out harm reduction that includes clean syringes and needles, some other types of supplies that are specifically for drug users.
We also hand out condoms, which we consider to be harm reduction in terms of people that are out on the street. We also participate in a community collective every other Monday where we just pop up in certain neighborhoods and set up tables and give out information, and Narcan, and a lunch. We do that all year round.
Mike: Talk about that for a second. How are those attended? Is it just people walking by and just happen to hear -?
Dan: It is. There's kind of been an evolution in terms of our ability to find the people that we're really interested in finding. We try and concentrate in neighborhoods or corners that have very high overdose rates. And it's a mix. I mean, people are walking by, people are getting off the bus, people are driving by and slow down and pull over, it's a mix. It's not just homeless people. It's kind of, we're just in the neighborhood.
Mike: Yeah. You know, people that don't understand addiction will hear this conversation and say, well, hold on a minute. They got money for drugs, you know, how they getting their drugs if they don't even have a place to live?
Dan: Yeah. I mean, that's fair, I guess? I mean, people prioritize, you kind of gotta meet people where they're at. You kind of have to understand their current situation and move on from there.
Mike: Yeah. And I think, Dan, as a substance abuse counselor, you know, that priority one is to keep yourself supplied, right? That for anybody who's been through this, that includes, you know, people with homes and alcohol who prioritizes alcohol over their own kids.
Dan: Yeah. Those are really difficult situations especially where there's, you know, families and substance use and it's very difficult to deal with.
Mike: Do you run across families or children as well?
Dan: We do. Adults with their children living outside that we consider to be a family. You know, we have several current moms with kids in cars that are, you know, just kind of driving around, making ends meet.
Luckily in Milwaukee County, when we see a child on the street, we're able to kind of escalate that to the people that run shelters and unfortunately we are in most cases able to prioritize those people and move 'em off the street pretty quickly. That's not the case with single males or single females.
Mike: Mm-hmm. You know, back to drugs for a second. If you're homeless, unsheltered, you're not exactly getting cream of the crop drugs. There's a lot of stuff out on the street right now, and a lot of it is fake or tainted. Do you ask them? Do you know what you're taking?
Dan: Occasionally, I guess not regularly. And people that are concerned about what they're taking, we see the full spectrum there as well. I mean, we see people who are very concerned and ask for test strips -,
Dan: See people that are not very concerned at all, and then the majority of the people are somewhere in the middle. It's the full range of people being concerned about what they're taking.
Mike: You know, I think most people are aware of fentanyl being in so much stuff on the street right now that we're seeing. But there's something out there new too, it's called Xylazine. And I don't think that responds to Narcan, do you know?
Dan: That's a great question. That's something I don't really know for sure, and I'm also trying to find out. I have concerns that, you know, Naloxone delivered in a nasal inhaler can combat the effects of some of these more powerful opiates.
We recently had our first experience administering naloxone to someone experiencing an overdose and I really don't know what they were using at the time. Two doses of the nasal inhaler did improve breathing for this person, but it wasn't until the IV naloxone that was administered by the EMTs did the person regain consciousness. So you know, that concerns me.
Mike: So talk about that instance. What happened? How did you come across it?
Dan: It was someone very near to our office location and somebody alerted us that, you know, there was somebody lying on the ground. And when we went over and heard kind of the gurgled breathing and saw some foaming at the mouth, we administered naloxone right away.
Mike: And then called 911?
Dan: Correct, yeah. I mean it kind of happened in concert. We had two of us there. Like I say, we did administer two doses of the nasal inhaler and the gurgled breathing improved. But the person didn't regain consciousness until the EMTs arrived.
Mike: You know, that also is not unusual because some of what we're seeing now, you don't know what that person ingested. And I have EMTs tell us, we had one here on the podcast, say there are times where they don't know what they've had and they've had to do more of what they usually do to get the person to respond.
Dan: Yeah, I would assume that's the case. I mean, I would also add that based on information from the medical examiner, they're also finding a lot of poly-substances, right, in people that overdose.
Mike: Yeah. What was it like when the person regained consciousness?
Dan: It was shocking, I guess. I mean, all of a sudden they popped up and could walk to the stretcher then. So it was shocking.
Mike: And of course they've been out so they don't recollect. They don't know what you were looking at, right?
Dan: That's exactly correct.
Mike: Did they say anything?
Mike: It's just amazing. Well, okay, so you have some of the same ongoing conversations with some of the same people. What do you find works in your conversations? Like, what do you do? What's the approach?
Dan: I guess I would say that I've noticed that, you know, some of the traditional counseling methods work, like being an active listener or reflecting emotion, I mean, essentially being a good listener goes a long way. We spend a lot of time building trust with people that live on the street. I mean, trust is essential.
Delivering on commitments, not over promising, being genuine, are the main ingredients to making conversations work on the street. Most people experiencing unsheltered homelessness are in crisis, in that they've lost their access to shelter and security and possibly access to food. So crisis management skills work well with the homeless population. There are a number of tools that work in this population.
Mike: What do you think, I mean, as an organization, you know, we've had this whole conversation and not once have you mentioned funding or political anything. Which I think is great actually, but what can we do to ease some of the problem? I mean, as you all talk and you say, you know, if we only did this, this could get better.
Dan: I mean, I hate to sound like a broken record, but in the end, in my view, we're capacity limited in terms of the amount of quality, low-income housing that's available in Milwaukee. I mean, this basically backs up the entire shelter system. People can't move from shelter into housing. People can't move from the street to shelter. I mean not having quality, low-income housing really, really causes problems for people in terms of experiencing homelessness.
Mike: Did the problem get worse/stay the same during the pandemic? What did you see an effect of Covid?
Dan: Yeah, we keep track of the people that we consider to be street homeless and we saw those numbers drop during the two years of Covid 20 and 21. I guess I'm not one hundred percent sure why that is. I mean, there were some Covid resources. Where people got hotel rooms or shelter, you know, based on Covid funding.
I guess I'm not a hundred percent sure why that is. The other thing that was interesting to me during Covid is we were all prepared for, you know, to see lots of Covid in the homeless population and we saw very little, I think people that generally live outside did okay during the Covid pandemic.
Mike: Hmm, hmm. Fresh air and isolated maybe, huh?
Dan: Yep, exactly. Yeah.
Mike: Do you ever get, I mean, you said that sometimes you just lose track of people. Do you ever get a moment where there's a success story that just keeps you going?
Dan: Oh, yeah. All the time. Regularly do we get people in the housing or who kind of call back and or we were able to connect with after they do get inside and they're very thankful. There are people that go way out of their way to thank us and it does drive us to continue this work.
Mike: Oh, that's great. Well, okay, speaking of that, let's wrap this with this because I always worry, and we talk a lot about mental health here. When you work the way you're working, all of you, for the street angels, what do you do to keep yourselves on an even keel so that you don't get too down about what you see?
Dan: That's a great question. I mean, our outreach team is primarily volunteer based, so we have a couple full-time employees, but generally the overwhelming majority of our outreach team is volunteer based. So we try and do activities, we try and go out to dinner, we try and take time outside of worrying about people that are experiencing homelessness and just enjoy each other.
Mike: Can you turn it off, Dan? Or as you're driving home, do you end up pulling over sometimes?
Dan: I guess it varies. I mean, sometimes I'm able to turn it off very well, sometimes I'm not, so I still struggle with that. I mean, I'm getting better, but there are still situations that are difficult to get outta my mind.
I can tell you when you first start doing this, when you get home from outreach at night, you just need some time to decompress and think and sort through everything that you saw that night. As you do it more and more that reflection time after outreach goes down and gets less as the years go on.
Mike: I was just thinking as I even asked that question, we haven't done a podcast on that, but I think that's a good podcast to do; how to flip the switch and take care of yourself. Because I know a lot of people who work with folks who have a hard time turning it off when they get home.
Dan: Yep. I see people struggle. I see my friends struggle with that as well. If somebody comes up in a situation where counseling for them is important. We encourage that and we try and make that happen as well. There are situations where you run into on the street where you maybe need to talk with somebody about that and we encourage that amongst our outreach team.
Mike: Awesome. I'm gonna put the link to the Street Angels at the bottom of this podcast, obviously, but for those people that just listen or listen in their car, I'm sure that there's people that want to either help, or learn more, donate. How do they get ahold of you all?
Dan: I guess the best way would be through our website which you said you provide the link. I did wanna mention funding, you had mentioned that earlier, and I think that's an advantage of the Street Angels is that we don't get government funding. So we are privately funded and we use that as an advantage. Hey, we're not part of the system. We don't get money from people that are also offering shelter or, you know, we don't push any solution based on our funding. And we find that people respect that we are not interested in getting government funding because of those reasons.
Mike: So donations are important then?
Dan: Donations are very important. We get donations from individuals as well as foundations.
Mike: Exceptional. Well, you know, Dan, I can't thank you enough for joining us and talking about this and also for the work that you do.
I know from the people that contact me regularly who listen to this, there's a lot of people just shaking their head in admiration right now for all of you. So I greatly appreciate it. For those of you who are listening, please check the link at the bottom and if you're in the position of being able to help, please do so.
Listen in again next time, and until next time, please take care of each other, and this is a great way to end this one, stay safe.
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