When she was 19, Peggy Lynch embarked on her first social service role, staffing the crisis hotline for what was then Ingraham Volunteers.
Now, Lynch has been an outreach worker with Preble Street, an agency that offers services for the homeless, for 12 years and she has no qualms about hiking out to an encampment of homeless people, pulling up a milk crate and listening to their stories.
Even people who are chronically suspicious of officials, and those caught in in substance abuse or mental illness, listen to her.
Sometimes they let her lead them to housing and medical care.
"She connects with people that almost no one else can," said Josh O’Brien, who runs Portland’s Oxford Street homeless shelter.
Lynch has worked with Milestone Shelter’s Homeless Outreach and Mobile Emergency Team, responding to people incapacitated by alcohol. She now also works with homeless veterans, splitting her time between projects in York County and in Portland.
Homeless outreach means finding people who need help and persuading them to accept it, she said.
"You really need to be a good listener, non-judgmental, compassionate," she said. "A lot of what I do is meet people literally where they’re at."
Jon Bradley, associate director at Preble Street, says that although she has no formal social work training, Lynch has a presence that even wary people warm to.
"She’s amazing at engaging people," he said. "She is the best outreach worker I’ve probably ever met."