How to Build Employment Programs that Prevent and End Homelessness

USICH interviewed Mark Putnam the Director of Consulting and Technical Assistance for Building Changes, about the characteristics of successful employment programs for people experiencing or at risk of homelessness.  Putnam has focused his entire career on helping people experiencing homelessness find a pathway out of poverty through education, employment, and stable, affordable housing.

People who are experiencing or at-risk of homelessness often face multiple barriers to employment: low educational attainment levels, having young children and no access to child care, limited or no past work experience and few marketable job skills, mental health or substance abuse problems, chronic health problems or disability, no access to transportation, bad credit (which can make both finding a job and a house difficult as landlords and lower wage employers often run credit checks), and, for some, criminal histories.  In today’s tough job market, getting and keeping a job can be very difficult even for people who don’t face such barriers.  For someone who is up against multiple walls, it can at times seem impossible.  But it isn’t.  As Putnam explained, “We have learned a lot over the past decade about what types of programs work to help people at risk of or experiencing homelessness find and keep a stable job which in turn can give them a big boost toward life stability and independence.”

Building Changes either works directly on or works with partners who run four different program models that have proven track records for helping people at risk of or experiencing homelessness find and keep jobs.

Employment and Education Navigation

The employment and education navigation model is based on developing partnerships between a service provider, the local workforce investment board, and a college, usually a community college. It can be very difficult for someone who is struggling to make ends meet on a daily basis to be able to navigate the many systems that provide the services that can help them out of poverty. Putnam said “the role of the service provider in this model is to serve as a navigator and coordinate with the community college and workforce investment board to connect the dots and make services more accessible to those who need them. To most effectively assist individuals experiencing or at-risk of homelessness, the systems that run programs for them need to be communicating.  Four counties in Washington are now using this model and have had much success.”

Vocationalizing Housing and Services Interventions

This model was pioneered by John Rio who is currently a Senior Research Associate at Advocates for Human Potential, and Building Changes has adapted it for its capacity building work with nonprofits serving homeless families. The basis of vocationalizing housing and services interventions is to embed employment as a goal into every step of the housing process from intake on.  “Over 25 agencies are involved in this process in our state, from case managers and shelters to public housing, private employers, federal agencies, and benefit providers,” Putnam explained.  “When a case manager first meets with a new client they should ask them about their job goals, skills, and educational level. They should ask them about child care needs and health and mental health issues. The goal should be to understand what barriers they face to employment from the very beginning so that they can begin working to overcome them right away. If someone passes through shelter and housing programs without addressing the fundamental barriers to employment, then it is not likely that they will truly be able to achieve stability. They will very likely end up cycling back through the same systems again.  It is especially important to start this process right away with rapid re-housing programs.  We should be taking advantage of the time that someone is in stable housing to help them build on their skills and education level.”

Transitional Jobs

Under the Recovery Act, temporary jobs were subsidized for some individuals receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits.  Compensation for work was paid with federal dollars for a short period of time and allowed individuals to build their skills and experience in the job market.  Jobs under this program were required to be new hire positions so that these jobs were newly created jobs.  Many employers would hire their transitional employees after the initial job placement, but even those who were not hired had experience and skills to bring with them as they look for their next job.  “This program is very cost effective as shortterm assistance is used to strategically build longterm stability,” said Putnam.  President Obama has proposed continuing and expanding this program under the American Jobs Act by creating a new Pathways Back to Work Fund that would provide subsidized employment opportunities for unemployed low-income individuals. 

Social Enterprise Model

In many communities around the country social enterprises are cropping up.  A social enterprise is a business motivated by the primary goal of doing good.  In order to do the most good, these businesses usually seek to be economically successful and to expand.  Many social enterprises are targeted to hire and train people who are at-risk of homelessness.  Putnam explained that this model is effective because, “social enterprise businesses actually create jobs at the same time that they train and build skills for the individuals they hire.”  

All of the models above can be successful, but there are also basic activities that are useful across the board.  The following are tips from Mark Putnam on what service providers and others can do to make sure they are helping people experiencing or at risk of homelessness attain stable employment.

Service providers need to make employment opportunities a priority for their case managers.  As a part of having an employment focus they should be aware of the main barriers to employment and the tools available in their community to overcome these barriers.  Providers should connect directly with employers in the community and learn what job skills are in demand locally.  Become aware of job training opportunities that are happening in the area and what their costs and placement numbers are. 

Also, service providers can play a critical role working with local work force investment boards and community colleges first to get them to realize that we are all serving the same population.  The individuals and families teetering on the edge of homelessness, sleeping doubled up or in their cars are in fact very often the same people looking desperately for work and attending classes to try to improve their family’s financial outlook.  By coordinating the services we provide across multiple systems, we can help them achieve their goal.  

Learn more:

Watch a Building Changes' video that highlights two innovative employment programs in Spokane, Washington - Stability, Dignity, Community... Work

A new paper prepared by Building Changes - Silos to Systems: Connecting Vulnerable Families to Work and Incomes to Prevent and End Homelessness

Suggested background reading on this issue from Building Changes

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

"Coordinating Resource to Make Jobs Attainable" an interview with Marléna Sessions of the Workforce Development Council of Seattle/King County