While there are significant challenges to ending unsheltered homelessness in rural America, employment is a key solution. Recently, the Colorado Center for Law and Social Policy interviewed workforce directors, Colorado Employment First managers, and job coaches across 25 counties in rural Colorado to explore strategies for connecting people experiencing homelessness with jobs. Their responses demonstrate how rural Continuum of Care (CoC) leaders and homeless service providers can build effective partnerships with workforce systems.
Confronting Rural Obstacles
Survey respondents agreed that the face of rural homelessness is unsheltered. Their most common barriers to addressing rural homelessness included:
- Vast geographies with limited centralized services.
- Transportation barriers.
- A shortage of living-wage jobs.
- Lack of affordable housing and shelter.
None of the 25 rural Colorado counties has a shelter, and there is only one permanent supportive housing site supported by the Balance of State CoC. While some people in these communities may be able to avoid homelessness at times by staying with friends and families, others must choose between living in the woods or other encampments, or moving to other cities or counties with more shelter.
Making Job Connections
Despite these hurdles, Colorado’s rural public workforce systems do connect people experiencing homelessness to employment. Increased collaboration with rural CoCs and providers promises to enhance that work. Key lessons include:
Get to know your partners. The most effective job matches happen when rural homelessness systems and public workforce systems integrate — with each other and with their counterparts in urban areas. CoCs and public workforce systems can partner to:
- Develop a coordinated entry system.
- Co-locate staff and services.
- Engage in cross-system case conferencing.
- Dedicate a point person on homeless service and public workforce staffs to make employment and housing connections.
Share resources and data. With the right data collection tool, homeless and employment programs can quantify the impact of their work. For example:
- To boost work readiness and skills training, SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) programs share resources across multiple counties in rural Colorado.
- To improve housing and job placements, CoCs and public workforce programs share data on service needs and employment histories.
- To enhance data collected during annual point-in-time counts, CoCs can incorporate employment-related questions into the survey
Enlist employers. CoCs and public workforce directors should engage employers as partners to address the income and housing disconnect that often causes homelessness. For example, in many rural Colorado counties, local ski resorts have partnered to fill this gap.
- In several counties, lodges partner with SNAP E&T programs to provide non-traditional on-site affordable housing to the program participants whom they employ.
- In another case, the county workforce center is coordinating with ski resorts to provide employment opportunities and shuttle employees between work and home, since affordable housing can otherwise be prohibitively far away for workers.
Survey results also suggest a need for rural CoC leaders and providers to partner with employers to provide training on trauma-informed care — ensuring that people experiencing homelessness can be matched to an appropriate environment.
Make the case for employment programs. CoCs and public workforce systems can convince employers, mainstream federal agencies, and philanthropic, advocacy, and community-based organizations to get involved.
CoCs can demonstrate the positive economic impact of employment and training programs — in ending unsheltered homelessness and benefiting the local economy. The Northeast Colorado area workforce director uses a multiplier formula (go to a rural example here) to determine the positive ripple effects of public investment and new businesses.
Advocate at the state and local levels. Advocacy for higher wages and improved labor standards is an important component of this work. In the short term, homeless service providers and CoCs can advance policies that connect rural jobseekers experiencing homelessness to meaningful work. Here are some immediate state and local advocacy goals:
- Devote funding for work supports and employment programs for people experiencing homelessness — and extend that funding for the amount of time necessary to make the best job matches.
- Ensure that states provide a clear Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) policy directive prioritizing people experiencing homelessness.
- Improve income support programs (e.g., Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and SNAP E&T) to supplement earned income and make connections to employment without a mandated work requirement.
Armed with these community-based partnerships, practices, and policies, homelessness systems leaders in rural areas can boost employment and income — and can help to end unsheltered rural homelessness.