11/15/2012 - New Department of Labor “Innovation Fund” To Test Employment and Housing Services Collaborations

One of the challenges in providing employment services to homeless families is a lack of coordination across systems and across funding streams. Three projects recently funded through the Labor Department’s Workforce Innovation Fund (“the Innovation Fund”) are directly addressing this coordination challenge.

At the September meeting of the U.S. Interagency Council of Homelessness, Michael Mirra, executive director of the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA) discussed his agency’s Housing and Employment Navigator, a specialized case management program that offers individualized and flexible supports to link homeless families served by THA and other housing programs to mainstream employment and job training services.

Tacoma’s Navigator is one of the new Innovation Fund grantees and is being implemented under the leadership of WorkForce Central. The program will serve a total of 400 families in the Puget Sound region. Under the program, homeless families are assigned a personal case manager— called a “navigator”—with specific expertise in housing, social service, and workforce systems. The navigator works with the family to develop housing and employment self-sufficiency plans; register for and enroll in employment and job training programs and interventions; and offer assistance in addressing barriers to successful completion of programs and entry into employment. Meanwhile, housing and workforce agencies at the system level are participating in integrated service planning, interagency communication, cross training of staff, and streamlining and sharing outcomes around stable housing, full employment, and reduced reliance on public benefits.

In addition to the Navigator, two other housing-related projects funded under the Innovation fund are in Cambridge, Mass. and Portland, Ore. In Cambridge, the Metro North Regional Employment Board is implementing the CONNECT program, a strategy for bundling and sequencing employment, financial coaching, asset building, and benefits screening services to low-income populations. CONNECT’s service integration strategy is based on the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Center for Working Families model, which has demonstrated that bundled, or integrated, services result in better outcomes related to economic self-sufficiency than individual services.

In Portland, Worksystems Inc.’s Housing Works: A Regional Workforce/Housing Alliance project is a partnership among Workforce Investment Boards, Public Housing Authorities, and employers.  The partnership formally integrates the range of the Boards’ workforce development services into the Authorities’ supportive services framework. Housing Works co-locates staff from the workforce system directly into public housing facilities to ensure efficient access to mainstream workforce services by the residents. Housing Works has been designed to replicate and expand upon a successful collaboration between two project partners, which in a previous pilot project led to increased wages and employability for enrolled residents.

The Innovation Fund is one of several new federal grant programs, including the Department of Education’s Investing in Education Fund (I3) and the Corporation for National and Community Service’s Social Innovation Fund, in which grantor agencies fund projects that seek to use evidence to design program strategies. All Innovation Fund grantees are conducting third-party evaluations of their interventions as part of their grants.   As a result, our housing cohort of Innovation Fund projects will contribute a great deal to the field and help target future investments in employment services for homeless families.   

For more information about the Workforce Innovation Fund, visit

Ben Seigel is deputy director of the Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the U.S. Department of Labor, Gina King Wells is a Policy Analyst with the Employment and Training Administration at DOL, and Sara Gallagher Williams is a workforce development specialist with the Employment and Training Administration at DOL. 

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