DC’s Homelessness Exit Strategy – A Glimmer of Hope?

In my morning perusal of various internet news and blogs from across the country, I stumbled across this one, once again drawn from www.change.org which details the possibility of procurement funds from the Department of Labor, designating funds to training homeless people into various industries, so that they may earn a living wage. Not minimum wage. A living wage.

Let’s face it, flipping burgers at McD’s doesn’t cut the mustard at the end of the day, when it comes to sustainability and survival. Like everyone else who is out of work, these guys and gals need and want jobs as well.

As for the whole cell phone issue, how else does a homeless person maintain a connection to his/her providers, employers,  family and so on? Last I heard there just a handful of pay phones remaining, in the entire country.

The “Exit Strategy” for D.C.’s

Homeless

by Eric Sheptock September 01, 2010 10:12 AM 

You may remember the story: First Lady Michelle Obama spends a day serving food in a soup kitchen in the capital. An excited guest snaps a picture of her with a camera phone. The right wing media goes nuts asking, “How can a homeless guy have a cell phone?!,” not realizing that cell phones are an affordable lifeline for many homeless individuals. A Department of Labor employee includes a photo of the man taking a photo in a disparaging email. Homeless advocates use that gaffe to forge a relationship with the Department. What do we want? Jobs! When do we want them? Now!

That saga that began with a homeless man photographing Michelle Obama and led to homeless advocates working with the Labor Department and D.C.’s Department of Human Services to create a job-training program for the homeless continues.

In May, the advocacy organization STREATS and DHS filed paperwork with DOL in order to get funding for the “Exit Strategy,” a program that would train higher-functioning homeless people to do jobs that pay a living wage so that they wouldn’t need to depend on the government for anything — not food stamps, help with rent or any other federal assistance. However, the paperwork was filed too close to the end of DOL’s budgetary funding cycle, which means that now we must wait until the next fiscal year to be funded by DOL.

STREATS recently met with Human Services director Clarence Carter to discuss the development of this program and other funding options including the distinct possibility of funding from DHS. However, one of the basic rules of funding is that a program must be designed according to the preferences of those providing the funding. On the one hand, if the Exit Strategy were funded by the federal government, STREATS would have to do what is known in the homeless advocacy community as “creaming” — helping those who are easiest to help, who have the fewest issues and who are most likely to succeed (i.e. leave homelessness). This would mean that the program wouldn’t help anyone with mental illness, physical impairments or chemical dependency. On the other hand, if the Exit Strategy were funded by DHS, we would have to do some “silting” — helping those who are hardest to help.

Under the leadership of Director Carter DHS has done much silting. They’ve had a policy of focusing on the “most vulnerable” homeless so as to get them in housing and connect them to much-needed services — but not jobs. This ambitious goal is admirable and serves an important purpose. Nonetheless, D.C.’s homeless shelters are chock full of able-bodied, able-minded people who just need a little help getting back on their feet. These people complain to me often about being ignored by the system. When asked about the prospects of DHS shifting its focus from the most vulnerable to the least vulnerable homeless, Carter was adamant about continuing to deliver the same level of service to those who are most vulnerable.

Carter said that he would definitely not fund a program that only accepted homeless people who had no other issues, but might fund a program that accepts any homeless person who wants to work. That said, we are now making plans to incorporate the Exit Strategy at D.C.’s Emery “Work” Shelter where the primary requirement for entry is that a person is working a steady job. As it turns out, many residents have been at Emery for a considerable amount of time; because, their jobs don’t pay a living wage and often pay minimum wage, thus making it impossible for them to exit homelessness. If (and when) all goes well, the Exit Strategy will retrain some residents to do higher-paying jobs and help others to find higher-paying jobs in their present field of work.

In mid-August, some members of STREATS met with Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington, D.C.’s congresswoman, to gain her support for the program. It was a sure sell insomuch as Norton heads the Commission on Black Men and Boys — a program which deals with the challenges faced by this particular group. She had just led a panel discussion at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library which addressed the challenges being faced by black men as they seek employment in today’s job market. During our 15-minute meeting, she agreed that there is much overlap in what her commission and STREATS are doing in that a disproportionate number of homeless people are black men. She expressed her support for our effort and has offered to send a letter of support to people in D.C. government and the U.S. Department of Labor.

So, the Exit Strategy has gained the support of the U.S. Department of Labor, the D.C. Department of Human Services, Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton and, most importantly, the homeless community. However, that won’t prevent it from falling prey to the ravages of the present economy. With so many people being laid off, we’re left to wonder who, if anyone, is hiring these days. That’s not to speak of the fact that an employer promising to hire someone who is in job-training is almost unheard of in Washington, D.C. Nonetheless, as it stands, the Exit Strategy — a program being developed for the most part by homeless and formerly homeless people — is a few months and one funding cycle away from becoming a reality.

Photo credit: Smath.

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