People experiencing homelessness were the focus of a “Connect to Work” project at the Supportive Housing Providers Association of Illinois (SHPA). They identified six elements shared by the best programs in the country.
You’re waiting for the light at a busy intersection. A scruffy guy with a flowing ponytail ambles down the line of cars with a hand-lettered cardboard sign: “Homeless Vet. Please Help. God Bless.” He works his way toward your car. Behind you, a driver leans from his window and shouts, “Get a job, buster!”
Although this is probably a common image of the unemployed homeless, it’s not a very accurate picture. People experiencing homelessness were the focus of a recently completed project “Connect to Work” at my organization, the Supportive Housing Providers Association of Illinois (SHPA). The project, supported by the Butler Family Fund, found ways to connect homeless people to jobs.
Working with a top-drawer Advisory Council (working with SHPA on this project were Workforce Investment Boards, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, the Chicago Jobs Council, the National Transitional Jobs Network and Continua of Care from around Illinois) and consultant Fred Spannaus, we identified the most successful training and employment models in the state and the country. We found what works and why it works.
We encouraged collaboration between homeless systems and employment systems by asking both to designate a homeless liaison that the other could connect with when serving a person experiencing homelessness. We created ways for people who work with those experiencing homelessness to match up with training resources and job openings.
In the first few months of the Connect to Work project, we identified and studied employment programs that assist people who have experienced homelessness. We spoke with dozens of organizations from New York to California, and visited projects in Illinois and Utah. We listened to the experts. By studying the programs that are effective, we isolated six common elements that are shared by the best programs in the country:
- Successful programs are right-sized. They begin quite modestly. The director of a great program in Salt Lake City (also supported by the Butler Family Fund), said “Start very small … scale it to fit what you really can do, not all that you want to do.”
- Successful programs find and make use of motivation. They identify people who want to work. The director of the Los Angeles workforce center noted that when a client expresses a desire to work, the conversation should shift immediately. A number of proven methods can find and use internal motivation as a tool.
- Use lots of one-on-one and small-group interactions. Most people learn best by doing. Great programs often operate with classes of eight or fewer participants and provide plenty of peer group interaction.
- Programs need to be open ended. The Doe Fund in New York City keeps participants enrolled and active until they secure an acceptable living-wage job.
- Great programs never go it alone. They are led by people who are “natural collaborators.” They focus on measuring outcomes. They don’t care who gets the credit.
- Great programs have long-term partnerships with potential employers. They understand that they are not asking companies for favors or donations. Instead, they offer answers. They solve problems for companies that can’t find enough qualified applicants.
With this knowledge, we created a website: www.ConnectToWork.org. On this site, users can find more than 80 promising practices along with links and useful documents. Using webinars and in-person events, SHPA has already reached hundreds of organizations, including job-training programs, groups serving the homeless, and housing providers.
What is the role of funders?
Funders of employment and training programs focused on people experiencing homelessness should use the six common elements above as an evaluation tool paying particular attention to the notion of right-sizing. Successful outcomes for small groups is desired rather than lackluster results for a crowd. Programs that are connected or collaborate with housing providers makes it easier for participants to survive and thrive. Investing in employment and training programs is a key component in ending homelessness.
Lore Baker is executive director of the Supportive Housing Providers Association of Illinois, which works to strengthen the supportive housing industry, enable the increased development of supportive housing, and support non-profit organizations to develop the capacity for providing permanent supportive housing.