Holistic Services: A Recipe for Success in Helping Homeless Youth Get + Keep Jobs

By David T. Applegate, Policy and Advocacy Assistant, NTJN

 DayBreak

This month, the National Transitional Jobs Network (NTJN) is highlighting an organization that’s been leading the way in the fight to end youth homelessness for over forty years: Daybreak. Located in Dayton, Ohio, Daybreak was founded in 1975 by volunteers who realized that young people who had been kicked out of their homes or had run away needed a safe place to stay at night.

Originally an emergency shelter for homeless youth, Daybreak’s operations have evolved and expanded over time.  As Daybreak’s Chief Executive Officer, Linda Kramer, puts it, “Our work is no longer just about housing the 15 year-old runaway but trying our best to address each individual’s oftentimes extensive and complex needs.”  Today, Daybreak offers street outreach, housing, education, mental health, and employment services—including transitional jobs—to help youth get and stay housed.

In this interview, Linda shares more about the need for a holistic approach when addressing the needs of homeless youth and tells us all about Daybreak’s innovative approach to increasing employment opportunities for youth via their creative transitional jobs program.

NTJN: Who makes up Daybreak’s target population? Are there any groups that you see as particularly vulnerable or in need of assistance?

Linda Kramer: Daybreak has always served as an emergency shelter for young teens between the ages of 10 and 18, but we’re increasingly seeing the need to focus more attention on transition-aged youth who are between the ages of 18 and 24. These youth are often called “gapper” youth because their needs fall through the gaps of traditional youth and adult support systems.  Youth in this age group are being kicked out of their homes or aging out of foster care, but then they don’t meet the eligibility requirements of programs that serve kids and have needs that programs for adults aren’t tailored to meet. Daybreak’s housing program is the only program in our area that focuses on the unique needs of this underserved population. I’d also add that 20 percent of youth self-identify as LGBTQ, and many homeless youth experience varying degrees of mental illness. Our newest housing program is Alma’s Place, which focuses on housing and serving young adults with mental illnesses that have made it difficult for them to develop basic life skills, including being able to get and keep a job.

NTJN: Daybreak offers employment services to the youth that it serves, including transitional jobs.  Why is employment an important part of helping youth exit homelessness?

Linda Kramer: Education and employment are key to the long-term success of most youth, including homeless youth. In most cases, these youth are living on the edge without a safety net. Street outreach, emergency shelter, and housing are critically needed to help move youth off of the streets – but if we are really serious about helping them to leave the streets forever, then they need more, including jobs and careers. Daybreak is committed to helping homeless youth develop the skills and resources needed to secure and maintain employment so that they are able to keep their housing after they leave the safety of our programs.

NTJN: Daybreak created Lindy & Company, a gourmet pet treat bakery that offers transitional jobs to youth experiencing homelessness. What inspired this unique TJ program, and what role has it played in helping Daybreak youth find and keep jobs?

Linda Kramer: We’ve always provided traditional employment support, like resume writing and interview prep. However, over time we found that while our kids were really good at getting jobs, they weren’t always the best at keeping them. We realized that our kids struggled with some of the soft skills, like showing up on time or the basic social skills associated with customer service.

Because we wanted our youth to practice employment skills in a real-world context that would prepare them for future jobs, we created Lindy & Company, a social enterprise where we bake gourmet pet treats for cats and dogs.  Lindy’s offers youth wage-paid transitional jobs, and working there is a great opportunity for experiential learning.  The kids get to experience and be involved in every part of the bakery including customer service, baking, recipe testing, publicity, working in the farmers’ market, and so on. There’s close coordination with the staff, but it’s certainly youth-directed and the kids really get to take ownership over their work.

What’s great about this model is that when our youth are in the bakery, staff gets the chance to assess each individual’s strengths and challenges and the youth get the chance to experiment with their skills and discover areas of interest. If someone hates customer service, we can help match them up with a job that’s a better fit. It’s all part of a mutual exploration with the youth.

NTJN: What are some of the challenges in helping youth, including those experiencing homelessness, get and keep jobs?

Linda Kramer: As I mentioned, many of our youth need to develop soft skills and job readiness skills so that they’re prepared for work. We do have kids who are able to find and secure a job right away, but about two-thirds of our youth take advantage of the Lindy’s program so that they can work on these skills. Some of our youth have never been in a situation where they need to get up for work or be at a place on time every day. We work with them on being reliable, accepting constructive criticism, and doing things that they might not like but still have to do. It can be a challenge to help our youth cultivate and practice these skills, but it’s important to offer them the opportunity to do so.

NTJN: What advice or insight can you offer to other organizations or individuals with regards to helping youth experiencing homelessness succeed in employment?

Linda Kramer: It’s not for the faint of heart! Many of our kids come in not necessarily wanting to work or get a job. One of the biggest challenges for our staff when they first start working with a young person is to shift that attitude and bring that individual along in seeing the value of work. The experience Daybreak youth gain through Lindy’s and our partnerships with local employers has been crucial in helping the youth gain an appreciation for the value of work.

Again, we really try to focus on the youths’ existing strengths and the development of their soft skills so they can retain the jobs they get. When our kids come home to the shelter every night, it is important that they get a chance to decompress and process their days.

NTJN: What would you say is one thing that makes Daybreak particularly effective in its efforts to eliminate youth homelessness?

Linda Kramer: If only I knew – I would be on Oprah! Every organization that deals with this population is unique in what it does. For us, I think it is a multi-disciplinary approach. We’re licensed to provide mental health services and we’re able to provide effective wraparound services in mental health, housing, education, and employment.

We want to take a holistic approach in everything we do. It’s not just one case manager working with a young person – it’s a team effort. As the saying goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.” We always strive to figure out what’s not working with each individual and make an effort to change and improve. You must hit all of the pieces with each kid, because each of them is a whole person with individual needs.

If you are interested in learning more about Daybreak you can visit their website or order pet treats online for your cat or dog!

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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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