Elevating Employment as an Essential Element of Rapid Re-Housing

Helen Howell, Executive Director at Building Changes
Helen Howell, Executive Director, Building Changes

Policymakers, providers, and taxpayers have put a lot of faith and investment in rapid re-housing as a leading solution for lifting people out of homelessness. I share in the enthusiasm but am concerned about what happens to parents and children when their rapid re-housing rental subsidy runs out.  

We cannot simply move families rapidly into housing and consider our work done. We also must be sure they can afford to remain housed and do not return to homelessness. Let’s make the success of rapid re-housing sustainable by making employment a core piece of this promising strategy. 

The organization I lead, Building Changes, is committed to helping parents of families experiencing homelessness earn steady income through a good job – and improve their housing stability as a result. Over the past decade, we have supported a series of pilots that break down the silos of the workforce and homelessness systems in an effort to get them to better understand one another and encourage cross-system partnerships. We have chronicled what we learned from our experience in a new report, Coordinating Employment and Housing Services: A Strategy to Impact Family Homelessness 

Our report offers guidance to workforce and homelessness service providers that want to join forces, but don’t know how. When service systems come together and place emphasis on both finding housing and finding a job, families achieve positive results. This is being demonstrated through a current project supported by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Workforce Innovation Fund and implemented by three regional workforce councils in the state of Washington 

The project is built around an Employment Navigator model that Building Changes developed with the help of our government, nonprofit, and philanthropic partners. Under the project model, a staff person for a participating provider works with a family as a navigator, coordinating employment, housing, and social services, and connecting the family to other community resources.  

Preliminary outcome data from this particular project is hot off the press and I’m excited to share the results: 

  • 58% of participants have either become newly employed or been hired in a new job that earns higher income 

  • 67% of those who became employed have retained their new job six months after hire 

  • 48% of participants have emerged out of homelessness and secured stable housing 

These numbers are particularly inspiring considering that finding a job — a stressful chore for any of us — is especially burdensome for parents experiencing homelessness. As one formerly homeless mother of a seven-year-old girl recently told Building Changes and our provider partner, “I always wanted to get a job but it’s so hard when you don’t have a place to lay your head down at night.”  

Parents who are experiencing homelessness are already dealing with the traumas and troubles associated with not having housing for their family. When they make the effort to obtain employment services, we can have a powerful impact by providing them assistance in navigating the unfamiliar and often confusing terrain of the workforce system. 

In our new report, Building Changes encourages the homelessness and workforce systems to work together to make employment services fully accessible to parents of families experiencing homelessness so they can participate in the services with ease. We acknowledge that forging cross-sector partnerships can be frustrating and difficult. Each system has its own rules, language, and priorities. Different systems have conflicting procedures for collecting and processing data, which obstruct efforts to analyze and evaluate program results. Our report offers ideas for addressing these and other challenges. 

No one expects the homelessness system to provide employment services or the workforce system to lead a family’s search for housing. We suggest that providers from each system stick to their own area of expertise, while at the same time communicating and coordinating with one another for the benefit of the family that they mutually serve. By coordinating the services of the homelessness and workforce systems, we can assist families who have been rapidly re-housed to find a job and earn the income they need to stay housed. 

Whenever we speak about rapid re-housing and homelessness, let’s continue to lift up employment and earned income as critical to housing stability. 

Helen Howell is executive director of Building Changes, a nonprofit in the state of Washington that strengthens the leaders, organizations and systems working to make it possible for everyone to be stably housed. Learn more at BuildingChanges.org. 

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