Connections Project Draws Teams of Innovators to D.C. to Advance Employment Solutions to Homelessness
By Carl Wiley, Coordinator, National Center on Employment and Homelessness (NCEH)
At the beginning of April, and with the generous support of the Oak Foundation and the Melville Charitable Trust, Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives team and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) co-hosted the Working to End Homelessness (WEH) Innovation Workshop in Washington, D.C. Our event brought together 10 Connections Project Finalist Teams from communities all across the country as they built partnerships and fine-tuned innovative ideas to connect homeless jobseekers to employment and greater economic opportunity. The Connections Project is a three year, place-based, systems-level collaboration and capacity-building project that aims to increase employment and economic opportunity for homeless jobseekers. The Workshop was energizing and constructive—and here’s a look at the highlights and takeaways.
Day One: Fostering Ideas
Our WEH Innovation Workshop kicked off with a big welcome from Rebecca Allen of Melville Charitable Trust, Martha Toll of the Butler Family Fund, and Jasmine Hayes of USICH. Teams then got to work presenting their Connections Project ideas to each other in a fast-paced lightning round (yes, we rang a bell if they went over five minutes!) and then opening up their ideas for questions and feedback from all of the attendees. With Connections Project Teams having been thoroughly quizzed on their ideas, we broke for lunch. Over lunch, we were joined by Deputy Secretary of Labor Christopher Wu, who spoke about how the Department of Labor is using employment to prevent and lift people out of homelessness and the value of public private partnerships such as ours with USICH, Melville Charitable Trust, and the Oak Foundation.
Later in the afternoon, Connections Project Teams were paired up with our thirteen Innovation Coaches from a wide range of fields to help Connections Project Teams build on their ideas. We were lucky enough to have Ann Miskey from Funders Together To End Homelessness, Ali Ryder from Org Code, Greg Kaufmann and Alyssa Peterson from TalkPoverty.org, Cliff Johnson from the National League of Cities, as well as eight other innovation coaches who partnered with teams to deconstruct their ideas and to help them challenge their assumptions, wrestle with new ideas, and take advantage of new resources, tools, and frameworks to help them build out their ideas. Using the guidance from the Innovation Coaches and riding the creative energy, teams then met in small groups to leverage their collective knowledge and problem solve obstacles likely to surface when creating systems-level innovations. These “Shift and Share” sessions consisted of four discussions on topics ranging from “Leveraging Small Amounts of $$ for Big Change” to “Engaging Employers.” To close out a busy Day One, we toasted all our great work and unwound with a happy hour where teams and coaches could reflect on the great work accomplished throughout the day in a more social atmosphere.
Day Two: Intersections and Opportunities
Since we’d spent Day One challenging and deconstructing ideas, Day Two was focused on putting (stronger!) ideas back together. Connections Project Finalists began with a quick overview of some of the federal policies that support people experiencing homelessness and with barriers to employment. Teams then had an opportunity to sit down with federal partners from over twelve agencies including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), the U.S Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for open discussions about the federal landscape in which their Connections Project ideas would live. Teams engaged these federal partners on ways to increase sector partnerships, career pathways, cross-program data and measurement, and job-driven investment as well as ways federal agencies can benefit homeless jobseekers. As the workshop drew to a close, teams spread across the event space to distill what they’d learned into Theories of Change and how their ideas will help homeless jobseekers move out of homelessness and find quality employment opportunities.
Where We’re Heading Next
Over their two days at the WEH Innovation Workshop, teams rolled up their sleeves and diligently got down to business to make sure that their Final Proposal offers a strong, actionable, and innovative systems level collaboration that will help homeless jobseekers succeed in employment. Teams are currently hard at work preparing their final proposals, which are due to the NCEH by May 15. We can’t wait to see them!