Imagine yourself a single parent without a job, determined to lift your young family out of the misery of homelessness and into the security of stable housing. You need to work – and you want to work – but your first priority, understandably, is finding a place for your family to live.
A local housing provider that specializes in helping families like yours suggests a program called Rapid Re-Housing that will place your family in an apartment right away and cover rent, at least temporarily. At some point, though, the subsidy will run out and you will be responsible for paying the landlord. Earning steady income from a job is no longer an afterthought. It’s a necessity.
Your housing case manager refers you to the workforce system, which specializes in employment services. The people there say they want to help, and tell you what is expected and required. Frankly, you already are overwhelmed by the demands of getting your family settled. You rattle off a list of obstacles standing in the way of finding and keeping a job: spotty work history, limited job skills, no car for commuting, no money to pay for childcare while you are at work. You don’t even own a decent suit for a job interview.
You expect them to give up on you, but instead you hear them say: “No problem!” The next thing you know, a team is working with you to knock down those seemingly insurmountable barriers, one by one. The job you need for your family to remain housed is no longer a fantasy. It’s a reality.
Parents of families experiencing homelessness should be received with open arms – and open minds – when they enter the unfamiliar and often intimidating territory of the workforce system. Their unique barriers to employment aren’t excuses or personal deficiencies, they are challenges to be overcome – and everyone deserves a second chance.
Over the past decade, Building Changes has advanced efforts to bring Washington state’s workforce and homeless housing systems together, urging them to better understand one another – and the needs of homeless families they mutually serve. That work is encouraging partnerships between the two systems, bringing us closer to the goal of providing coordinated services for homeless families.
The experience of bringing the two systems together is chronicled in a new report: Coordinating Employment and Housing Services: A Strategy to Impact Family Homelessness. The paper affirms much of what we believed to be true after many years of working in this field:
- Powerful solutions to family homelessness are found in strategies that offer struggling parents both stability and economic opportunity.
- Rapid Re-Housing will realize its full potential as a best practice only when employment is embedded as a core component.
- Lasting results occur when rapidly re-housed families can afford their housing over the long haul – maintaining stability so they don’t have to return to homelessness.
- Since service providers from different sectors – such as housing and employment – are actually serving the same families, costs are reduced and outcomes are improved when providers collaborate, coordinate and communicate better.
- While a national effort to reduce homelessness is crucial, the most effective approaches emerge at the local level.
The Building Changes report highlights an Employment Navigator approach, an innovative model pioneered and piloted in the Seattle area. Building Changes describes the lessons it has learned through the Navigator and other housing-employment pilots it has supported over the years – and the challenges systems have faced. The report includes specific recommendations to aid workforce development programs and homeless housing providers in Washington state and across the country that want to set up their own cross-system partnerships.
Data to support these recommendations, while still emerging, show promise. A federally supported Housing and Employment Navigator project targeting heads of homeless families, currently being tested in Washington state, shows that nearly six of every 10 project participants either became newly employed or secured a better job that pays more. Of those who became employed, two-thirds have retained their new job for at least six months. And, most compelling, about half of project participants already have advanced from a state of homelessness to the security of stable housing.
Those of us in philanthropy have the privilege to consider and promote new approaches for reducing homelessness, but often lack the on-the-ground experience to back up our bets. In its report, Building Changes walks the talk for us, creating a roadmap to action that we can share with our communities.
As funders, we can use our influence to urge workforce and homeless housing systems to break out of their silos and work together. While coordinating employment and housing services can be awkward, time-consuming, frustrating and difficult, it is possible. If we expect families to give us their best efforts, service providers (and funders!) should give their best efforts, too. Our families deserve that much.
Interested in learning more about philanthropy's role in the connection between economic security and homelessness? Join us at one of our upcoming October events focused specifically on this issue:
- October 20 - New England Convening: Ending Homelessness Through Economic Security
- October 25 - Funders Discussion Around Homelessness and Economic Security at the Heartland Alliance A Nation That Works Conference
David Wertheimer is the Deputy Director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, as well as a Board Member of Funders Together to End Homelessness. Find him at @DavidWSeattle.