This piece was originally published in the Wharton Magazine.
By Tori Lyon
One of the more disheartening myths about homeless individuals is that they cannot or do not want to work. The reasons for homelessness are much more complex—often stemming from a deep loss or trauma that cascades a person into isolation, unemployment and, potentially, substance abuse.
Loss comes in many forms, including economic. As mainstream America learned when the Great Recession eliminated some 8.7 million positions in over two years, joblessness is not always a choice. In large urban centers like New York and Los Angeles, affordable housing options are increasingly scarce, and the numbers of homeless individuals and families are climbing, due in part to job losses..
For 31 years, the Jericho Project has worked to enable homeless individuals to reclaim their lives, and employment is a powerful tool that can help. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness asserts that access to job training and the kind of support that leads to good paying jobs help families and individuals move from homelessness to housing and financial stability.
Housing is key. As Virginia Woolf wrote, self-esteem starts with a room of one’s own. Supportive housing, enabled by public-private partnerships, offers game-changing dignity to people by allowing them to lease their own furnished studios at rents that are affordable to them. Once individuals have the foundation of stable housing in place, a strong employment program provides the guidance, mentoring and skills to help them land and keep jobs. It should also ignite their interests and passions, and engage them in their future success.
At the same time, it is crucial to identify an employer who is not bound by stereotypes and can perceive the value that the person can bring to the company.
A study by the Chronic Homelessness Employment Technical Assistance Center (CHETA) found that provider staff members were challenged by employer stereotypes when presenting homeless, and qualified, candidates. These stereotypes included doubts that homeless individuals can obtain work or want to work, questions about their motivation and capabilities, and concerns about how they would integrate into the workplace.
Yet results prove otherwise, as shown with a five-city pilot project by the federal departments of Labor and Housing and Urban Development to house and employ people experiencing chronic homelessness. With technical support by CHETA, 63.5 percent of the 200 people who started a job held their job for at least six months, and 40 percent held their job for 12 months or more.
Moreover, exemplary nonprofits have demonstrated ongoing success in helping homeless individuals gain housing and employment. The Pine Street Inn, a nonprofit in Boston, provides a full spectrum of services, including its IMPACT Employment Services, which support more than 600 men and women each year in their efforts to secure, retain and upgrade a job.
Another example is a two-year employer-nonprofit partnership between Jericho and Summit Appliance, a Bronx-based, family-owned manufacturer of custom refrigerators. Despite a 9.5 percent unemployment rate in New York City at the time we started, Summit still needed workers, many for entry-level positions such as mechanics or drivers. Jericho had access to people with the will and skill to work.
By screening applicants before presenting them to Summit, Jericho ensured that job candidates had the aptitude and attitude to succeed. We prepared them in mock interviews and, once hired, guided them on how to maximize job performance and continually improve. Jericho stayed in touch with the company and stepped in to troubleshoot any issues before they became problems. This is not unlike the helpful advice of a family member or friend, but it has been a very rewarding way for people to experience success on the job—and often move on to even better positions.
The Jericho-Summit partnership has resulted in 28 job placements—including 14 for veterans. While some have departed, they have mostly been to higher-paying jobs. As more people are being hired, promoted and advanced, it’s generating opportunities for the employees and their families.
The antidote to trauma and isolation is comfort and community. By applying it with a strong dose of employment strategy, we can put homeless individuals and veterans back to work and on with life.
Tori Lyon is the Executive Director of Jericho Project.