Coordinating Resources to Make Jobs Attainable

An interview with Marléna Sessions the Chief Executive Officer of the Workforce Development Council (WDC), the largest Workforce Investment Board in Washington State.

The WDC provides access to employment services for job seekers of all types – from the recently unemployed executive to an individual experiencing homelessness.  The WDC oversees the WorkSource system of Seattle-King County, with seven physical One Stop Career Centers and thirteen Connection sites. Connection sites provide online access to WorkSource resources from  partner locations such as the Seattle Public Library, King County Housing Authority locations, and community colleges.

The WDC is not a traditional workforce investment board. The leadership of WDC of Seattle-King County determined that formulaic funding from the Department of Labor should also be augmented by competitive funding from federal, philanthropic, and private partners to better serve the population. Due to this supplemental funding with other partners, the WDC is described as a “nonprofit think tank” that works with partners across a broad range of fields to make the greatest impact in their community. 

USICH: In this period of economic downturn, what role do Workforce Development Councils play in helping those experiencing homelessness?

Ms. Sessions: A Workforce Development Council’s role is to serve all jobseekers, and during this period there are many. Those experiencing homelessness, however, are really getting missed by the employment system as a whole. I had to ask myself, “Why are homeless individuals and families not getting in our doors? Why don’t we reach them? Are our systems working together effectively?”  Looking at the system as a whole, we were finding that those experiencing homelessness were either not accessing our One Stop Centers or were getting disillusioned trying to navigate the job system. We began to build up our relationships with other systems like the public housing agency to reach these individuals that need our help.

It’s important for employment systems to realize that people experiencing homelessness are not always thinking about employment when they are primarily focused on getting their immediate needs met. A job may not be the first thing on your mind when you are trying to gain stability. But if staff and case managers can start the dialogue early as an individual moves through the steps of stability (getting their health back, moving to more permanent housing, etc) the individual will see that employment is a very real part of their future.

USICH: This realization that partnerships can make your program more effective is an important one for employment systems to understand in order to reach those with the highest barriers to employment. Tell us a bit about the program with Building Changes that WDC is involved in.

Ms. Sessions: Betsy Lieberman at Building Changes, Bill Block from the Committee to End Homelessness in King County, and I got together and discussed ways to bridge the gaps between homelessness services and employment services.  Using both Workforce Investment Act dollars approved by our board of directors and funds from Building Changes, we began the Navigator Pilot Project in the spring of 2010. Navigators reach out to individuals living within Washington Families Fund housing units in King County and link them to employment services at WorkSource and the Homeless Intervention Project [the WDC’s HUD-funded program].  Navigators are specialized in working with jobseekers that have or are currently experiencing homelessness or are in transitional housing. They meet with customers in their homes, serve as trainers for WorkSource staff, as well as provide workshops, computer lab help and job club leadership at WorkSource sites.

Because this is a pilot program, the program is still changing as we learn more about the population we are serving and new needs arise. One of the best things to come out of this project so far is the notoriety we’re getting in the Workforce Development Council world for putting greater focus on homeless individuals and families. This Navigator idea has been spread by Building Changes to our neighboring WDCs and we’re all beginning to see results. It’s encouraging to know that people experiencing homelessness are not getting left behind in the decisions being made by WDCs in Washington State. 

USICH: As this program has unfolded, what are some of the lessons you have learned that could be applicable for other workforce investment boards?

Ms. Sessions: One of the things we discovered early on is that of the 300 service provider staff working in WorkSource sites in Seattle-King County, not many of them fully understood the needs of individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Because these families do not have permanence, may have lost critical documentation, or have less education than other jobseekers, the traditional way of doing things will not work for them. Our board decided to invest in training dollars for Navigators to train WorkSource staff system-wide to understand the needs of homeless families in their job search. As we move through this training phase, it is becoming evident that we will see improved client outcomes once our staff is aware of the barriers people experiencing homelessness face.

USICH: What advice would you give to other Workforce Investment Boards looking to increase the employment outcomes for homeless individuals and families and potentially start a collaborative program like the Navigators program?

Ms. Sessions:

  • Find leaders in the housing and service sectors already working with this population and learn from them. I am indebted to Betsy Lieberman, Bill Block, and Martha Toll from The Butler Family Fund who were able to connect me with people in homeless services to learn more about what the unique needs are and what the WDC can do.
  • Get the leaders of systems working in the community or county together for a practical discussion of how their system works to serve individuals and families experiencing homelessness.  It’s also wise to include local administrators doing the work in this discussion for implementation feasibility.
  • Train Workforce Investment Board staff on the unique needs and barriers to employment individuals and families experiencing homelessness face.
  • Have a strong Workforce Investment Board culture to begin with. Many times departments that are down the hall from one another do not know what the other is doing. Before your system can collaborate with another, there needs to be communication and understanding of common goals within the employment system.
  • Most importantly, have the courage to do something. We took a risk with WIA dollars to set aside targeted funds for this program, but because our board of directors understands the large need for this population in the current job climate we were able to get it done. People experiencing or at risk of homelessness deserve our attention now more than ever and we have to work together outside of our own system to best reach them.

Learn more:

Read "Jobs and Homelessness: a Message from USICH Deputy Director Anthony Love"

Read "How to Build Employment Programs that Prevent and End Homelessness" an interview with Mark Putnam of Building Changes