Clifford Wilson is part of the City of Miami’s Homeless Outreach team. You can find him regularly canvassing the streets of Miami in his eponymous green polo shirt. Clifford has been part of the city’s outreach team for almost ten years, connecting those living on the street with medical care, mental health services and when ready, housing. During crisis situations like hurricanes and pandemics, he plays the role of educator, making sure the unsheltered have updated facts and access to emergency housing. Outreach workers like Clifford provide Miami’s unsheltered a lifeline to the many services available through the Trust’s Continuum of Care.
We asked Clifford to talk about the responsibilities and challenges of his job, and his role in helping end homelessness in Miami-Dade.
Q: What was your most difficult case?
I received a call from the police. I found a family sleeping on the junk mail of an abandoned apartment. It broke my heart. I literally cried. Not only to see a human being at that juncture, but to visibly notice that both the children and the mother had Down’s syndrome. It was the most disheartening thing ever. I had to convince them that it was in their best interest to come with me. The hardest part was talking to the woman and having her understand that I’m a safe person, that she could come with me, that the children would be safe. Eventually, seeing the police officer there made her feel more comfortable. It made her more relaxed. So, I kind of made a breakthrough. It took some time to explain the situation to her, but when I brought her to Chapman Partnership South, she understood that I was putting her and her children somewhere where it was safe.
Q: Do you find that people are often distrusting of you when you approach them as an outreach worker?
There can be some uncertainty, especially with me wearing the city or municipality logo, you know, because they may think they’re in some kind of trouble. The “aura of authority” is kind of off-putting. But when you break through those barriers and you explain to people what it is that you do and you get them into their comfort zone, that’s when the job becomes beautiful. Because the person will open up to you and tell you their story. I could write a book with the stories I’ve heard.
Q: Is there one person that you've helped that has really stood out to you?
Unfortunately, yes. There is one story that I remember vividly. There was this one special needs woman that was displaced from the place where she resided. This woman had no clue who she was, or where she was going. I believe it was Catholic Charities that I was working with. I was called in to help her access shelter, but we were actually able to find her relatives—reconnect her with them—so she didn’t become homeless. That to me was kind of a scary situation, because this person was mentally impaired. They were essentially lost. I was with her for three or four hours, exhausting every resource, until we ended up finding her relatives and getting in contact with them. For me, that was a great relief and triumph. It’s not always about placing people into shelters. It’s about being of service. Helping another agency, coming together to figure out how to solve a complex problem, that dynamic to me is the most fulfilling portion of my job.
Q: Is talking to people how you build trust? What are other ways you break down that wall?
Definitely conversation—putting away my “badge,” this thing that's on my chest. Putting that aside for a second and talking to another human being, you know, it’s the art of listening. I think we as humans listen to respond, not to absorb and comprehend. Active listening is probably the secret to my job. If you actively listen, a person will tell you everything you need to know. They'll tell you their needs, their wants, their dreams, their aspirations, things that you might not be able to help them with right away. But you can do your part. And the providers will do their part. It's a collective effort. I'm just one point in the Continuum. I'm not the best part of the Continuum of Care, but I am a vital one.
Q: Is there a part of your job that’s really frustrating?
A: The frustrating part of my job is just the misconceptions of homelessness. I think we as a society need to rethink, relearn, and have a different concept than what we now have of homelessness. After having this job for a decade, hand-in-hand with the homeless, homelessness comes in many different shapes and sizes, backgrounds, genders, what have you. I've even helped individuals who have transitioned. They’re a group who are also misunderstood in terms of homelessness. And they’re also fragile. Not a lot of people are tolerant of trans people or the LGBTQ community. I deal with them almost exclusively. I make it a priority to not only understand the individual, but to understand where they come from.
Q: Is there anything else that you want people to know about your job that you haven’t covered yet?
A: We're all brothers and sisters here in the world. If someone's in pain, if somebody’s suffering, lend a hand. Smile. A smile can go a long way.