Saturday, June 20, 2009

Why Some Homeless People Have Difficulty Finding Work -- Part 2

As promised, here is part 2 of "why Some Homeless People Have Difficulty Finding Work". The good news is that there is a sustained effort to put the able-bodied homeless to work. However, we still have much work to do getting the homeless to work.....

On Thursday, June 4th, about 2 dozen people met with Joe Walsh, the director of DC government's Dept. of Employment Services (DOES) to discuss how his department could better assist the homeless in finding employment. They included others in DC Government, some homeless service providers, a formerly homeless homeless advocate (Steve Thomas of "Better Believe Steve") and myself. We discussed the matters set forth in the previous blog post as well as this one. I gave Mr. Walsh an article from the June 3rd edition of the Washington Times which explained that many homeless people work but don't make enough money to pay rent, with the average rent for a 1-bedroom in DC being $1,400 and the minimum wage being just over $8/hr. Joe Walsh seemed quite concerned and anxious to hear new ideas. He admitted that his department is not where it should be in terms of serving the DC community and expressed a willingness to have future meetings and work with us to better serve the homeless community. Though I haven't heard from him since, it has barely been 2 weeks. Just how much Joe Walsh will actually do for the homeless has yet to be seen.

We explained that homeless people often don't have enough money to ride public transit or buy lunch for the first 2 weeks of work (as mentioned in the previous post). We also explained that the One-stop Career Centers which his department runs are too high-tech for some homeless people.

DOES' One-Stop Career Centers are employment centers that are designed for those with a moderate to high level of computer skills. A person can sign up for orientation and take a basic education test (the CASAS test), after which they are put into the department's computer system. From that point onward, they receive job postings on-line. This proves to be challenging for people who might not have any computer skills, especially those 40 and over who grew up in an era when computer skills were not considered important. (I only learned to use computers in November of 2006.) As a matter of fact, the woman doing the orientation clearly stated that she didn't have time to tutor anyone on how to use the computer and advised that anyone who needed a high level of assistance sign up for a computer course at the library. The unfortunate truth is that a person might need to know how to use a computer in order to get a job digging ditches.

Another problem with DOES' system is that, if someone fails the CASAS test, they can't re-take it for a whole year. While DOES will assist the person in finding an A.B.E. (Adult Basic Education) course and a job-readiness program, they won't assist the person in finding employment until that person passes the test, which is designed to ensure that one is operating at an 8th grade level or above. While other homeless advocates and I understand that certain education requirements are necessary, we maintain that even those who fail the test must sustain themselves in some way and that it is unreasonable to make someone wait a whole year to re-take the test if they failed by just a few points. Even those who fail the test need to eat.

Joe Walsh explained that the law won't allow him to put One-Stops in the shelters but that having representatives to do presentations on the services that they offer and sign people up for services at the shelters was a feasible option. (Just yesterday, I received word of this having happened at one of the shelters, though I've yet to confirm it or get any details.)

However, what I HAVE seen is that Federal City Recovery Services (which is featured in one of the videos on the right side of the screen) is serious about helping people to move beyond homelessness. They returned for the 2nd time on June 18th so as to connect dozens of homeless people to services which include but are not limited to employment. (See video.) They plan to return bi-weekly. FCRS must also be commended in that they let the homeless individual design his/her recovery plan. I believe that we all can agree that, if the mayor and DC Government want to end homelessness in the District, they should help people to find employment with a living wage as opposed to just closing down homeless shelters and thus hanging people out to dry.

I'd be remiss if I were to fail to mention those who helped me to hold down my job. I began work at the Developing Families Center in NE Washington, Dc on April 21st of this year. I actually hadn't been looking for work, as i was busy enough doing my homeless advocacy. As indicated in a previous post, a friend purchased a cell phone for me so that I could be reached more easily and told me that he would buy 200 minutes for me but that I would have to take over the payments. He returned a week or so later to tell me that a friend of his had a job opening.

For the 1st week, I walked 3 miles to work every evening and didn't eat much of a dinner. (I work from 6 to 10 PM, whereas I used to get food from the salvation Army around 8 PM every evening.) Due to undiagnosed leg issues, the walk was becoming quite uncomfortable. There were days that I only ate 1 full-course meal.

On the 28th, I received word of a place that would help me with bus tokens. I went there and they were all out. The following day I was able to make my way to a computer and mass e-mail my contacts asking for help. Beginning on May 3rd, a couple of women that I know gave me a total of $110.00. I had actually received my 1st check on Friday, May 1st, though it wasn't for a full 2 weeks of work. The gifts (no, I don't have to pay it back) proved to be quite helpful nonetheless. even WITH the gifts, I barely had enough money to cover my expenses until May 15th. Since then, a couple more people have given me gifts. A man gave me $20.00 because he appreciates how I advocate for the homeless. A woman who viewed me on CNN (see video)sent me $30.00 and a transit card worth over $40.00.

While this is all good and nice, let's not forget that this is not all about me, but about helping ALL able-bodied homeless people to find work. I have certain advantages that are not common to other homeless people. I have over 700 contacts each in my e-mail and Twitter accounts and about 1,200 on Facebook. I'm relatively well-known due to my advocacy. This enables me to send messages to dozens of contacts, knowing that at least one of them will be ready, willing and able to help. I also have some computer skills and a high school diploma. I'm relatively well-spoken. Furthermore, I have money from my part-time job that enables me to seek full-time employment. Not all homeless people are as fortunate as me. It is for these people that I am most concerned. The system needs to be designed to meet the needs of the least of us. It is with this in mind that we must forge ahead and transform the system.

As a closing thought, let me emphasize that employment in and of itself is not enough. There must also be a living wage, affordable health care and affordable housing. After all, why bother working if you still can't make ends meet?????

NOTE: My next post will address the lies and uncertainties pertaining to the wrongful death of a homeless woman whom I gave the alias "Jane Doughless" in a previous blog post. As it turns out, DC Government might be sued in court over her death and they are on edge as they try to figure out what happened and who is at fault for this death.

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