Learning from the expertise of people with lived experience of homelessness is one of the areas of increased focus in Home, Together, the federal strategic plan to prevent and end homelessness. Listening sessions offer a platform for people with expertise through lived experience to share their recommendations around specific policy issues related to homelessness. In November 2019, we participated in a listening session hosted by Friendship Place, an organization based in the District of Columbia that provides housing and services to people experiencing homelessness, including connections to employment. We met with participants who were connected through the program to employment services. Friendship Place staff shared their perspectives, as well. Our sincere thanks go out to everyone at Friendship Place for their kindness and candor.
In the session, we asked participants to share what worked and what could be improved to help people experiencing and exiting homelessness better connect to jobs.
Overall, participants felt that a solid relationship was critical between program staff and the clients. Participants described a positive and warm environment where they were treated with respect, which is important in a space where people often feel ignored or not respected for their status as unhoused. They also felt that consistent communication via check-ins was important, since it kept clients motivated and focused during the difficulty of finding and keeping a job. Accountability was also developed through these opportunities to regularly update the provider and client with information.
Below are the prompts around which the discussion was based, along with a summary of the responses.
What are some of the biggest challenges to finding a job for people experiencing homelessness?
- Transportation is very expensive for a person who is not working or earning very much. Transportation accounted for a significant portion of job finding and job maintenance costs.
- Hygiene was difficult to maintain, as access to enough running water and privacy to bathe was difficult. Many people noted not having access to a place to wash and store professional clothing for work.
- It was difficult for clients to balance the incongruency of living without shelter and having to be a well rested, alert, and overall productive employee. They raised concerns about not having a place for privacy, quiet for the recommended 6-8 hours of daily rest, meal preparation, storage for possessions, shelter from inclement weather, and physical threats from other people. One participant said, “It was the mentality of not having a place to call home.”
- Being without a phone made it harder for employees and providers to connect with jobseekers or employees.
- Many participants did not have strong computer skills, which is often a basic requirement for applying for and being successful at many jobs. The participants also noted they may lack other necessary skills.
- The health of the participants in shelters was often compromised because of stress and/or lack of sleep from constant movement or disruptions at the shelter or on the street.
- For participants who were not native to the United States, language barriers and lack of cultural competency caused communication issues and discomfort, which affected participants ability to connect to employers.
- Intimate partner violence can interrupt the ability of participants to maintain gainful employment.
What programs or services make it easier for people experiencing homelessness to get a job?
- Organizations that successfully connected clients to a job supported people throughout the entire process, and continue to support the client’s maintenance of employment once the connection was made.
- Organizations that provide quality professional clothing support participants to show up to work with a sense of dignity.
- Places to shower that offer a more flexible schedules for people who have jobs at hours that fall outside of traditional workplace hours. Participants recommended that 24-hour shelter access be the rule and they should include more bathing facilities.
- Organizations that provide first month’s rent and security deposit and support clients to create a budget and financial goals to make the transition easier.
- Special rates for nonprofits that have clients who use ridesharing to reach employers that are not metro accessible because of time or location.
- Funding case managers to organize small groups of 3-4 people and support independent living for a year rather than remain in a shelter.
- A person dedicated to helping people adjust to the transition of exiting out of homelessness. That person should be part of a larger support system for clients.
What are some of the challenges that can remain even after someone has a job? What kinds of supports would help to address those challenges?
- Transportation continued to be an issue even after participants were connected to jobs. Many of the low barrier jobs that people experiencing homelessness have higher chances of getting are often second or third shift jobs that are late night, overnight, or begin very early in the morning. Public transportation does not run during these times. Public transportation is not accessible in many of the areas outside of urban/city centers.
- Managing money after gaining employment proves to be a challenge for some.
- Support to ensure a smooth transition to covering rent and utilities. Participants noted that they often do not feel ready to take on the entire financial burden as many current programs immediately shift all housing costs onto clients. Support with security deposits and short-term rental assistance is beneficial for many people exiting homelessness.
Many of the participants spoke of the hardships that lead to homelessness or the trauma that they experienced while living without a stable home. The provision of trauma-informed services should be an integral part of working to connect people experiencing homelessness with job. Participants and staff of Friendship Place spoke about the importance of having program staff trained in trauma-informed services and committed to building a relationship with the individual.
How can the homelessness assistance system, like shelters and housing programs, better help people connect to jobs?
Ensuring that shelters and homelessness service providers treat individuals and families in a way that fully recognizes their human and civil rights. Staff should be trained to deliver services compassionately and with cultural competence, following-up with clients, and treating each guest with respect.
- Assume employability. Help people find a job first, and provide additional, long-term training later.