Combine homelessness with joblessness in a family’s life, and economic self-sufficiency starts to look like it lives on the moon. But despite continued high unemployment in the U.S. and Washington state, increasing numbers of formerly homeless families here are finding and holding jobs.
A recently released progress report by Building Changes offered good news on several fronts: Among the heads of household in the 1,217 families assisted by the Washington Families Fund, employment had increased 50 percent as of 2010. Average earned income had risen 32 percent. And the number of the families receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) had decreased by 30 percent.
The encouraging trends may derive in part from a seemingly minor but important evolution in the dominant model for solving the problem of homelessness.
As homelessness began steeply rising across the nation three decades ago, early responses were based on the idea that in order to qualify for permanent housing, homeless people had to achieve stability — resolve their mental-health or substance-abuse problems and find jobs.
But it became increasingly apparent that individuals and families in crisis who lived in temporary shelter spaces were generally less able to work or solve personal problems. So more than a decade ago, the “fix people first, and when they're stable, house them" paradigm began giving way to Housing First. The idea was that once people had homes — including, for high-needs clients, services to treat mental illnesses and substance abuse — they could more successfully maintain their health, find work, and hold down a job.
Now nonprofits guided by Housing First principles have begun incorporating employment services into their plans. An Economic Opportunities Initiative headed by Mark Putnam at Building Changes is leading housing and service providers in the region to develop new programs to help homeless and formerly homeless job seekers find work, and to form new partnerships with WorkForce Development Councils in Washington counties including King.
Another development, Putnam told me, is a pilot project at the YWCA in which Homeless Employment Navigators will guide unemployed formerly homeless individuals toward seeking jobs or better job qualifications. “It’s pretty innovative. We don’t know how successful it’s going to be, but it’s had some success elsewhere.” Part of the Employment Navigator's work will be directly with residents at housing sites “really emphasizing employment, vocational assessment, and career plans, helping them enroll in workforce development services and community college programs.”
A major challenge is finding jobs that pay more than $13 per hour, a wage too low to support a family. Putnam mentioned an initiative in King County called Skill Up Washington, focused on post-secondary education, that has served some homeless people through Shoreline Community College and Bellevue College. “They have flexible hours and can do some course work remotely” if necessary, “and earn a one-year certificate toward living-wage jobs, ones that pay $18 an hour” (for example, in the field of information technology).
The homeless family I know best lived in a continual crisis-management state for more than two years after they lost their apartment. Every time we met for coffee they were facing a new emergency: the eldest daughter ran away; relatives had called, asking for help; school was going badly for their son; the van that was their only shelter was towed away and impounded; all their household possessions in a storage unit were auctioned off when they could no longer afford the rent.
Now the younger son and daughter are in school every day, and the 18-year-old daughter and her mother are both studying for high-school equivalency degrees. The father has had long-delayed hernia surgery and for the first time is in regularly scheduled treatment for bipolar disorder complicated by PTSD from military service. It’s taken almost a year of finally living in permanent housing for the family to recover emotional balance and start making this kind of progress.
Said Putnam, “Homeless service providers need to meet clients where they’re at, and create space and opportunities for working.” Becoming stable enough to land and hold a job takes time and motivation.
“And it takes mentoring,” he added. “The YWCA has a model called Peer Career groups” where clients find support from each other. Together they can marshal the energy, sense of purpose, and employment-hunting tips that it takes to move from a life of continual crisis management to jobs and stability.