by Eric Grumdahl, USICH Policy Director
On Tuesday, the nation marked important milestones in the effort to create opportunity for all: President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law, signaling significant reforms to the nation’s workforce system. At the same time, Vice President Biden released a new report on the President’s job-skills agenda, detailing actions by the federal government and the private sector and successful strategies to help Americans access career pathways and ladders of opportunity. By fostering greater access to and support for employment among people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness, WIOA and the President’s job-skills agenda will accelerate progress on ending homelessness. Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness recognizes that accessing ladders of opportunity and overcoming barriers to employment are essential to obtaining and maintaining housing, as well as to finding meaning and purpose, and to thriving.
WIOA will help ensure that people experiencing or at-risk of homelessness have improved access to employment opportunities by:
- recognizing individuals experiencing homelessness as a specific population confronting barriers to employment
- reinforcing the intent of the workforce system to assist people with significant barriers to employment, with updated performance expectations that remove perceived disincentives for serving those with the greatest needs for support
- increasing local coordination and flexibility to meet the unique needs of individuals experiencing homelessness and regional job skill demand
Like its predecessor the Workforce Investment Act, WIOA specifically recognizes that people experiencing homelessness face barriers to employment. For many people confronting homelessness, employment can mean the difference between housing and homelessness. People facing homelessness are not homogenous and individual circumstances vary, however, common employment barriers include a lack of transportation or child care, low educational attainment, employment challenges posed by mental health issues, substance use disorders, or other disabilities and criminal histories. Homeless youth and young adults may confront high levels of trauma and limited vocational preparation among many young adults and youth experiencing homelessness. Most men and women return to their communities after military service in good health and good spirits and build successful careers and strong families, but some Veterans experiencing homelessness may confront employment barriers related to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other disorders.
Of course, simply recognizing that people experiencing homelessness face employment challenges is not enough. WIOA fosters local innovation and focus on providing employment supports for people experiencing homelessness, by clarifying that the central purpose of the workforce system is to support people with significant barriers to employment. This clarification of purpose is reinforced with a new approach to measuring and monitoring performance that Labor Secretary Thomas Perez has likened to competitive diving: local workforce systems should be judged not only for the employment outcomes they achieve, but also for the barriers they help those served to overcome, with measures that reflect both “degree of difficulty” and execution. WIOA supports this approach, which can embolden local leaders to ensure that their workforce system is aligned with the purpose of reaching, engaging, and achieving employment outcomes for people with significant barriers, including people experiencing homelessness.
In addition, WIOA modernizes the workforce system, revising previous expectations of a sequential approach to employment services with an approach that allows local workforce systems to connect job seekers with the supports that they need to be successful from day one of their job search. The Act also requires workforce programs to develop a single, comprehensive state plan to break down silos, reduce administrative costs, and streamline reporting requirements. State or local plans can provide the framework for local planners to create employment opportunities for individuals who or at-risk of or experiencing homelessness that fit regional employment and workforce needs, in addition to providing necessary supports for their success in the labor market.
WIOA also bolsters opportunities for youth experiencing or at-risk of homelessness. The Act authorizes specific funding for youth employment programs from FY 2015 through FY 2020 and expands the definition of “out-of-school youth” to include individuals ages 16 to 24 who have dropped out of school and those who face extensive barriers to work or school. This approach aligns with the Federal Framework to End Youth Homelessness. By focusing youth program services on out-of-school youth and high school dropout recovery efforts, the Act will promote school engagement and employment, which are two core outcomes of the youth framework.
WIOA represents a unified commitment across the federal government and Congress to provide access to ladders of opportunity for our nation’s most vulnerable individuals on the road to self-sufficiency.