Companioning and Street Outreach

Craig Rennebohm is an outreach worker who calls himself a companion. He reaches out to people struggling with homelessness, mental illness, and substance use on the streets of Seattle. Craig is founder of The Mental Health Chaplaincy and author of "Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: The Search for Home and Healing on the Streets." He shares his thoughts on the art of outreach with HRC’s Wendy Grace Evans.

“Many of our systems neglect people on the margins. We may move through life as if there is nothing we can do. Yet, I believe it is an insidious notion that some people are not worth it, or will not get better. It is this notion that permits us to tolerate homelessness,” explains Craig.

Craig is an outreach worker who calls himself a companion. He reaches out to people experiencing homelessness and/or mental illness and substance use on the streets of Seattle, Washington. He is the founder of The Mental Health Chaplaincy.

“Companioning is comprised of four basic practices: offering hospitality; walking side by side; spiritual listening; and accompaniment,” says Craig. He describes companioning as a way of relating to each other in a relationship that is responsive to suffering, supportive of healing and recovery, and shared in public. Initiating an interaction with a person in this way is part of the journey of companioning.

Craig explains that listening is at the heart of companioning. “Think about the last time that someone took the time to listen to you,” he asks. When Craig listens, he wants to take care with his responses. He is careful not to interrupt or say what he thinks another person should do. He invites people to share their stories in all their rich details. “While I listen, the person’s story is stirring things in me,” he says, “So I listen to myself and understand that we share common emotions.”

While he listens, he tunes into the basic themes of struggle and exploration. “The revelation of who a person is comes slowly. We discover and learn about people over time. I learn more about a person as I see them in relationship to their family and community,” says Craig. He listens to the person’s words, but also for context and life experiences. He listens for a person’s health, gifts, abilities, dreams, love, and faith. Ultimately he wants to listen for what he calls a person’s soul story. He listens to learn the answer to the questions: “What is your deepest identity?”

“No matter how destructive things are, in every moment, there is also an energy of encouragement. There is a movement of hope and potential. The elements of support and healing are active. Part of my faith is the belief that ultimately these things win out. Part of my work is to look for what is hopeful and promising,” shares Craig.

Craig explains that there is truth to feelings of hopelessness. These are real experiences for people. Knowing this, he acts on an understanding that no one is lost and no one is condemned to hopelessness.

Craig’s perspective on seeing potential and hope through the mask of mental illness is born of faith and experience. Craig offers to people he works with that they are “far more than [their] illness self.” People cannot always see this in themselves. To others, a person suffering from mental illness may not seem to be the same person. “In my work, I try to help others see the illness self as a function of what is going on in the brain. The healthy self is still there. The person’s capacities are still available. What needs to happen is a healing and care process that will help diminish the power of these symptoms,” says Craig.

Craig believes that each one of us is an expert in who we are and where we are. He tries to discern this with every person he meets. Craig explains that for some people it may be difficult to tell a coherent narrative, so he meets people where they are. “As we tell our stories again and again, we come to know who we are and our life journey in relationship to each other. Telling our stories is a part of becoming whole and healthy,” says Craig. Craig explores these practices through the stories he has lived and shared with suffering and healing neighbors.

Publication Date: 
Rockville, MD, USA