Down on the street with Matt Young

Down on the street with Matt Young

Marcel, Joyce

By their very nature, downtowns are designed to draw people in. But a successfully revitalized downtown center can also attract the kinds of people who can make a downtown feel unsafe. These could be people, for example, who are mentally challenged, or homeless, or panhandling, or using drugs, or just hanging out.

From Brattleboro to Burlington, this has been something of a problem around the state. But Burlington has developed an ingenious and humane solution – it has hired a downtown social worker to care for its street people.

Using city, state and United Way funding, Burlington has hired Matt Young, a community outreach worker, and given him a two-pronged mission to protect the street people, and also to protect the downtowns. As far as he knows, he is the only person in Vermont who is providing street-based social service support. Young is associated with the Howard Center for Human Services, a community mental health agency in Chittenden County for whom he’s worked for many years.

“I was hired in May 2000 in response to concerns by the community – including downtown businesses, the United Way, The Marketplace, and the Burlington Police Department,” Young said. “The concerns were about the behavior by people with mental illness that raised questions within the community over whether it was safe downtown. This was combined with the belief that some of these people needed help, and that it wasn’t a police problem. If someone is kneeling in the center of the Marketplace and praying, there is concern that this person is not receiving the services he or she needs. To call the police, as was being done a lot, doesn’t help the individual, and is not an effective use of police resources.”

At first, Young targeted people with mental illnesses. But his mission soon widened.

“I found when I started that there were many groups who contributed to the perception that the community was unsafe,” Young said. “These groups included people with mental illness, homeless individuals, people with serious substance abuse issues, transients, antisocial personalities, and others. So my role needed to expand to work with a great number of people.”

Young’s role was to provide support.

“If someone is pacing, or is mildly agitated, and if that’s their highest level of functioning, then my job is to balance their right to pace and be agitated with the needs of the community,” Young said. “I would protect their right to pace and display agitation, while educating the community on the rights of the mentally ill, the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of medications, and the right of people with mental illness not to take medication. Generally, I provide support to have people functioning at their highest level – and that could be pacing and being agitated.”

If someone is pacing too close to others, or becoming agitated at people, Young steps in.

“And I check in every day,” Young said. “I try and prevent people from going to jail or being hospitalized.”

In his first six months on the job, Young made approximately 2,300 contacts with approximately 660 individuals.

“I thought I would be seeing 80 individuals, many of whom I know,” Young said. “But if I see a 17-year-old woman panhandling with an infant child on her back, I’m going to talk to her about why she needs to panhandle, tell her about the town ordinances, check in on the health status of the baby, make sure they know where they can get free food, and find out if they need anything else. And I’m doing that fairly often. I also respond to calls from the Salvation Army, the library, and the YMCA.”

Summer is his busiest time, but winter cold brings its own challenges both to him and people who need his services. To some people on the street, he’s a threat, he said, because he has and will call the police if necessary. There are some behaviors that are simply unacceptable, Young said.

Down on Church Street on a cool fall afternoon, he walks comfortably among the shoppers, kids and the general milieu of downtown Burlington. He says hello to a few people, nods to others as they recognize him, and a petite teenage girl calls him by name, which he answers likewise.

As he talks about his job, Young keeps shifting his position and his eyes move up and down the street. There does not appear to be anything unusual happening, but he says there are about 10 things going on that he can see.

Young covers the whole downtown and might walk 10 to 15 miles a day up and down the hilly city. He looks very fit. The Howard Center has a grant proposal in to hire two and half more people. Young said he would welcome the assistance.

The Burlington Downtown Business Association calls Young its most recent success story.

“There seemed to be a need to reach out to this population, and he’s done that,” said Ed Moore, the association’s executive director. “It seemed like there was this element of society that was not being monitored effectively. Many were living in group homes, and wandering the streets during the day. We were concerned about their safety, and the way downtown was being perceived. Matt’s there for them to talk to. And as a result, there have been a lot of incidents, where previously the police would have been called in, but now the downtown restaurateurs and businesses call Matt. He’s been able to quiet potential situations.”

Copyright Boutin-McQuiston, Inc. Nov 01, 2001

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