You Get What You Try For — Employing People Experiencing Chronic Homelessness

Lessons from the Field, By Guest Blogger John Rio, MA, CRC


Among the top priorities to end homelessness in America, the Federal strategic plan, Opening Doors, describes the need for developing economic security for our nation’s poorest citizens. Rightfully so, income, especially earned income, is one of the critical needs of people experiencing homelessness. Work is essential not only for its economic rewards, but also because it is by working that we feel a part of society, contribute to it, and improve our well being. However, people experiencing homelessness, especially chronic homelessness, are mistakenly viewed as poor candidates for employment.

Chronic homelessness means an individual with a disability experienced either a homeless episode that lasted for a year or more, or had a series of four or more episodes within the past three years. Most face challenges from mental health or substance abuse disabilities. There are approximately 123,790 chronically homeless individuals nationwide on any given night. Although chronic homelessness represents a small share of the overall homeless population, chronically homeless people use up more than 50 percent of urgent services. People who have been homeless for a long time manage life on the streets and shelters by developing the talent to do so. In recent years, Housing First programs offer permanent housing for these individuals without the strings of treatment compliance, housing readiness, and the like. In short, the current approach eliminates barriers to housing, helps people make housing choices, and once housed, establish and pursue personal goals. The mindset of practitioners is that once housed, tenants can build on that foundation.

Unfortunately, employment services and supports to pursue competitive jobs are rarely accessible and are not routinely available to homeless job seekers and tenants of supportive housing despite the fact that people, who experience homelessness, including chronic homelessness, want to work and try to do so. A Detroit survey of 913 homeless men and women found that only 10 percent said they did not want to work and 18 percent reported having a paid job.[1] Most homeless programs never encourage tenants to move toward greater self-sufficiency through work—in fact, one early goal is often to help tenants obtain SSI and Medicaid benefits by proving that the person is incapable of working.  Fear of losing these benefits, once obtained, remains one of the greatest deterrents to employment. Housing First programs in a 2007 HUD study did not focus on the employment needs of their mostly chronically homeless participants. The result was that “no clients reported employment income to case managers at baseline, month one, or month 12.”[2]

The US Departments of Labor and Housing and Urban Development funded a pilot project to house and employ people experiencing chronic homelessness.[3] The purpose of the five-city pilot was to see whether chronically homeless individuals with serious multiple disabilities could move directly into permanent housing and be encouraged to seek employment. Once enrolled in the pilot programs, staff helped participants secure HUD funded rental assistance, locate housing, and to take immediate steps toward obtaining employment. Technical assistance and training for the initiative, including use of best practices and customized employment, was provided by the Chronic Homelessness Technical Assistance Center (CHETA), a partnership between the Corporation for Supportive Housing and Advocates for Human Potential. Attempting to help this population achieve housing and employment goals simultaneously may seem dubious to even the most informed. However, the results are surprising.

An evaluator at one of the pilot sites compared the local pilot project participants with a matched comparison group who did not have access to the same employment services. She concluded “you get what you try for”, if you encourage work, support it, and reward it, people, even those experiencing chronic homelessness, can do it. The converse was also demonstrated by the comparison groups’ poor employment outcomes —“if you don’t try to achieve specific outcomes, you don’t get them,” or at least you don’t get them as consistently and persistently.[4]

The recently released results of the pilot projects are impressive. Among the 456 program participants contained in the analytical sample:[5]

  • All participants entered permanent housing with either a Shelter Plus Care subsidy or Supportive Housing Program (SHP) rental assistance.
  • 44.5 percent of the participants received approval for housing subsidies within one month of enrollment.
  • 267 (or 58.6 percent) obtained at least one type of employment (competitive, protected, or self-employment), with some obtaining more than one job and more than one type of job.
  • 43.9 percent obtained at least one competitive job.
  • The mean hourly wage for all competitive jobs obtained by participants was $9.70 per hour.
  • Of the 200 people who started a job, 63.5 percent held their job for at least 6 months and 40 percent held their job for 12 or more months.
  • On average, it took program participants 5.5 months to obtain competitive employment.
  • 48 percent worked at part-time jobs; 31.3 percent worked for fewer than 20 hours per week.
  • More than 50 percent (52.1 percent) worked full time (defined as 35 hours or more a week).
  • The more employment services participants used, the more likely they were to obtain competitive employment.

Given the opportunity to work, access to jobs, and the supports necessary to keep them, homeless people can successfully work, whether recently or chronically homeless. If you want to help more homeless people participate in the labor market, then you have to try for that goal. Homeless assistance and housing programs need to encourage employment; mainstream workforce funding streams need to support homeless employment services; and researchers need to help the field refine its interventions.

John Rio, M.A., CRC, is a senior associate at Advocates for Human Potential in Washington, D.C. Trained as a rehabilitation counselor, he provides technical assistance across the country to improve employment and housing outcomes for people in recovery. He has helped hundreds of staff develop their skills and make use of employment best practices through workshops, conferences, and consultation to agencies. He conducts training on variety of critical topics including evidenced-based supported employment, work first, transitional jobs, strategies for justice involved job seekers, work incentives, integration of clinical, employment and housing services as well as strategies to finance employment services. He has done work for the U.S. Departments of Labor, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), VA and SAMHSA grantees, and state government and local agencies. He has researched key questions about employment, recovery, and homelessness and written numerous reports on these topics.

[1] Survey (2009) conducted by HAND, Detroit, MI.

[3] (2009). Chronic Homelessness Demonstration Program: A Synthesis of Key Findings, Issues, and Lessons Learned. (Prepared under sub-contract to CESSI for the Office of Disability and Employment Policy, U.S. Department of Labor). Rockville, MD: Westat.

[5] The analytical sample includes those participants who received housing and stayed with the program for more than 90 days.

About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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