Jul 12, 2016

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Challenges and opportunities for forging pathways from homelessness

Jobseekers who experience homelessness find themselves in a frustrating Catch 22: They can’t afford a home because they don’t have a job and they can’t land a job because they don’t have a home.

In metro Denver, over 30 percent of those experiencing homelessness have worked in the past month. But in today’s economy, the reliability and consistency of work hours may vary — particularly for those with the lowest-wage jobs. Sadly, these circumstances afflict a growing number of Colorado families as affordable housing becomes scarce throughout the state and many of the available job opportunities tend to offer low-income wages.

To address these troubling trends, the Butler Family Fund provided a significant grant to Colorado Center on Law and Policy (CCLP) in late 2015 to develop a work plan that will detail innovative ways to improve access to living-wage, middle-skill and career-pathway employment for jobseekers who have experienced homelessness. This grant is in direct response to the enactment of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (WIOA) which went into effect on July 1, 2016.

As the Project Coordinator contracted by CCLP for this grant, I began working in mid-February by gathering information about the challenges people experiencing homelessness face in different counties and regions throughout the state. I also heard feedback and recommendations for what is needed to help Coloradans out of homelessness and how WIOA fits in the equation. CCLP was already immersed in the WIOA implementation process. For more than three years, CCLP coordinated the Skills2Compete Colorado Coalition, which advocated for WIOA’s passage on a national level in partnership with the National Skills Coalition.

With July 1 right behind us, it is a good time to share how these efforts are progressing and what we have learned so far.  Since improving access to training opportunities and employment outcomes for people experiencing homelessness is the goal of this project, I spent the first several months of the project meeting with over 25 stakeholder groups. These stakeholders have included workforce directors, managers and staff; public agency representatives; representatives from homeless service organizations; housing and employment organizations; job-seekers; and employers. CCLP submitted comments on the state and local plans, and have encouraged others to submit comments as well. Thus, some of the recurring themes that are echoed by homeless employment service providers have been recorded at the state level.

Over the last five months, I’ve noted some common themes that have characterized urban and rural regions alike. Here are a few:

* Transportation to different workforce centers or service sites is a significant challenge across Colorado and the challenge continues once someone is employed. The magnitude of the impact of limited transportation — as well as the related expense — has been an epiphany to me. The transportation barrier becomes almost impossible to overcome in rural areas, and the cost of transportation in Denver and other cities is prohibitive for those experiencing homelessness.

* Another pervasive issue is the resistance of job-seekers to go to a workforce center unless someone goes with them. Many people who experience homelessness fear they won’t be treated well at these centers. Often, this is because they believe the services they received in the past did not respond to their needs. Others generally distrust bureaucracies and fear that any time spent with public agencies will be will be unpleasant, unproductive or confusing.

*Jobseekers who experienced homelessness are seeking a “starter job” to begin earning an income, but also need ongoing training and other assistance to pursue a career pathway that leads to economic stability.  This process requires building a relationship between the case manager at the workforce center and the job seeker to establish trust.

*Community service providers universally feel that participants who experienced homelessness often had significant trauma in their lives, and that staff assisting them in finding employment should have a thorough understanding of these issues. Trauma can influence people in many diverse and unique ways, and the experience of homelessness can make this more pronounced or destructive. Behaviors of this population are often shaped by different traumatic experiences. Having sensitivity to this dynamic and related behaviors is a crucial tool for providing responsive and effective employment services to these participants, and is seen as a key factor to supporting these job-seekers as they seek positive and appropriate career-pathway matches.

As outreach and research on this project continues, I am encouraged by the desire of most parties to collaborate effectively.

WIOA is not a “magic potion” that will cure all the ills of the workforce system, nor does it provide the funds needed to fill all of the gaps in services necessary to meet the needs of people experiencing homelessness. Instead, WIOA has served as the stimulus for new and dynamic conversations between different stakeholders that had not happened for a long time — and the result is an increased understanding about the overall issues of the workforce system related to serving individuals experiencing homelessness and other work barriers.

This awareness and desire to be active partners brings opportunities and hope for a more collaborative and integrated workforce system that will improve services to these underserved Coloradans.

– By Laura Ware

Recent articles

Remarks on Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization

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