Employment is Part of the Solution: Reflections on the 2015 National Homelessness Conference

This guest post was contributed by the National Center on Employment & Homelessness (NCEH) at Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity.

Everybody who wants to work should have the opportunity to work, and to earn enough income to support themselves and their families. Moreover, anyone who wants to work can be successful in work if given the right supports.

Clearly, there’s a growing recognition that employment is an important part of the solution to homelessness and a hunger for knowledge about what works, what funding is available, and how to deliver effective employment services.

Now is certainly an opportune time to renew the focus on employment: recent federal policy changes such as the passage of HEARTH Act and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) place an added emphasis on helping people experiencing homelessness succeed in the labor market and ensuring that employment services are accessible and effective. Moreover, the growth of the rapid re-housing strategy has brought attention to just how critical effective, specialized employment services are to keeping individuals and families employed and stably housed.

There are many other good reasons to fully incorporate employment as a goal within services to people experiencing homelessness. First and foremost, people experiencing homelessness overwhelmingly want to work—they consistently rank getting employment as a high priority. For many people employment is absolutely essential in order to meet basic needs and remain housed. Employment also has positive effects on mental health and recovery, and provides confidence, purpose, and structure to our lives.

It’s also important to recognize that many people experiencing homelessness already work but don’t earn enough to escape homelessness, so it’s critical to connect people with career pathways that lead to advancement and benefits and occupation-specific training to meet the needs of employers. It’s also critical to advocate for higher wages and better benefits for all workers, so that nobody who works has to live in poverty and homelessness.

We know that there are effective evidence-based models for helping people experiencing homelessness get and keep employment, such as Individualized Placement and Support (IPS), Transitional Jobs, and Social Enterprise, which combine rapid attachment to work with supportive services to help individuals remain employed. We also know, however, that effective services aren’t enough—we need to change systems in order to bring these solutions to scale and meaningfully address the need for employment among people experiencing homelessness. That’s why we launched the Connections Project, which will support innovative systems change and collaboration in five communities across the country with the goal of increasing employment and economic opportunity for homeless jobseekers and generating lessons learned that we can share with the field.

Now is the time for a stronger movement to ensure that people experiencing homelessness have the opportunity to access and advance in employment in order to become and remain stably housed, meet their needs, and fulfill their personal ambitions. We need to recognize that people experiencing homelessness are employable, eager to work, and can be successful with the right supports. We need to support and replicate effective practices and modify our national systems to deliver coordinated, accessible, and effective services. Preventing and ending homelessness depends in part on ensuring that everyone who wants to work has the opportunity to succeed in employment and support themselves and their families.