With an Employment First Approach, Homeless Youth Find their Professional Passions & Meet their Goals

By Leiha Edmonds, Research and Policy Assistant, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Brittany WatersTiffani Jackson 3 11#2

On any given night, over 200 unaccompanied children and youth experience homelessness in Washington, D.C., and it’s likely that hundreds more are doubled up, couch surfing, or living in other unstable housing situations that puts them at risk of homelessness. Yet when Friendship Place, a leading D.C.-based homeless services organization, scanned the District’s available services, they realized youth and young people up to the age of 30 often weren’t getting all the help they needed to exit homelessness. Many of these young people also weren’t working or in school, and it was clear that helping these opportunity youth succeed in employment would play a key role in preventing and ending their homelessness. That’s why Friendship Place created its Before Thirty program, which works with youth and young adults experiencing or at risk of homelessness to help them get and keep jobs, move into stable housing, and meet their goals. This month, we chatted with Before Thirty’s Youth and Young Adults Specialist, Tiffini Jackson, about the importance of an “Employment First” approach for homeless jobseekers, the hidden face of youth homelessness, and helping youth find their professional passions.

National Initiatives: Friendship Place talks a lot about the idea of “Employment First.” Can you explain what that means, and why an Employment First approach is important for young adults experiencing or at-risk of homelessness?

Tiffini Jackson: When we say Employment First, what we mean is that we assume employability and prioritize job placement over training. It’s central to our philosophy of care at Friendship Place. Many of the youth who come into our program don’t have time to go through unpaid job training, so we place them into a living wage job as soon as possible, based on what they’re passionate about. We believe our Employment First approach keeps youth more engaged in the program—they’re earning income to do what they like. Youth experiencing homelessness need to feel motivated and have stability for long term success, and having earned income can help with that.

National Initiatives: Outside of providing income, we know that having a job can have positive ripple effects on youth’s lives and be a great learning experience. How do you leverage the employment experience into a learning experience for youth?

Tiffini Jackson: Once our youth are in a job, we work with them one-on-one to build up their financial and life skills. By using a contextualized learning approach, we leverage their employment experience to help build up these skills – for example, we’ll use concrete examples from their work, like how their take-home pay sets the parameters for their monthly budget.

National Initiatives: What’s one thing you think more people need to know when it comes to addressing youth homelessness?

Tiffini Jackson At Before Thirty, we talk a lot about “hidden youth” who are doubled up with friends, not sleeping outside, and find ways to have up-to-date clothes so you wouldn’t know they’re experiencing homelessness—if you were to walk by them on the street you’d assume they’re doing okay, when in reality they’re not in school and they’re unemployed. Homelessness is a complex situation and youth experiencing homelessness often feel a lot of shame regardless of how they dress or where they are living. At Before Thirty, we’re working to help these “hidden youth” feel less ashamed about their situations.

Nolan Leslie 18 copyNational Initiatives: When we’ve spoken with providers, we’ve found it’s really important to “meet youth where they are” when offering employment and other services. How does this play out in your work?

Tiffini Jackson: It’s important to listen rather than just assume what a person needs. At Before Thirty, we’re big on providing the right opportunities for the youth who come through the program. We give youth a voice in the process and take time to connect with them. When the program began, we asked participating youth what they were interested in and molded Before Thirty to their needs – that’s why in addition to employment programming, we offer therapeutic services such as group discussions, dance, and creative writing classes.

National Initiatives: Is there anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t asked you about?

Tiffini Jackson: The participants in Before Thirty have already experienced a lot of rejection in their lives, so Friendship Place can’t be another place where they feel turned away. Providing a safe space, mentorship, and an opportunity to pursue their passions leads to real success for our youth.

Like what you read?
Learn best practices for employment programming for opportunity youth with our new Opportunity Youth Employment Toolkit.
See how our policy efforts help opportunity youth succeed in employment.
Read our other blogs about employment programming for opportunity youth.

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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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