Muriel Bowser & Deborah Carroll: Recent Progress on Homeless Employment – Join the Effort!!!

This blog post will go to DC Government's Dept. of Employment Services (DOES). I will try and schedule a meeting with them so that I can adequately represent their newest efforts when I speak to the homeless and as my colleagues and I gather information from them about their employment challenges. The following represents a somewhat coincidental coming together of the advocacy efforts of myself and my colleagues on the one hand and DC Government on the other hand – a closing of the gap. 

FAIR WARNING: Some of the initiatives are occasion for gut-wrenching laughter.....

On January 12th, 2016 I attended an ICH (Inter-agency Council on Homelessness) Executive Committee meeting where a presentation was given by Candace Nelson of DOES about what the department is doing to assist homeless people. She started out by indicating that in 2015 there were 191 people who identified as homeless who were served by DOES' American Jobs Center (AJC) and that 585 homeless people were served by DOES' Project Empowerment program with 355 obtaining employment and 281(?) remaining employed for at least six months. While I laud such progress and commend her presentation, I can't help but notice that government often fails to indicate the size and scope of a social ill when talking about what they're doing to address it. DC counted 7,298 homeless people in January 2015 – down 450 people from a year prior. If no new people were to become homeless, DC Government would need to assist about 1,500 people per year at exiting homelessness in order to end it by December 2020. Since we know that more people WILL fall from the frying pan of the DC Housing Authority wait list (which has had as many as 70,000 people on it) and into the fire of homelessness, it's imperative that we house AT LEAST 2,000 people per year or eight people per work day. Assuming that just under half of the homeless are able-bodied job seekers (with others currently working for less than a housing wage), at least three of those eight people would need to be DOES clients who are transitioning into housing.

The stats given at the beginning of Candace's presentation caused me to immediately think about the reasons for which more homeless people aren't taking advantage of DOES programs. I'm guessing that the homeless persons' annual point-in-time count which will take place on the night of January 27th, 2016 and whose results will be published by the end of May will indicate that the city has about 7,700 homeless people -- a very conservative figure (with DC having a population of 670,000). Of the 7,000+ homeless people in DC, there might be 2,500 to 3,000 who would take advantage of an employment program which they felt was geared toward meeting their needs -- a big "IF". This brings us back to the question:

Why are there not more homeless people taking advantage of DOES programs???

I would guess that:

1 – Many able-bodied homeless people don't know about these and other programs at DOES, in part because of insufficient outreach on the part of DOES hereto now -- something DOES is working on.

2 – People would need to forgo eating at the kitchens that serve homeless people in order to attend these programs, though they MIGHT be able to get enough food stamps to cover meals during program attendance.

3 – People might have difficulty acquiring sufficient transportation assistance.

4 – I know that many, like yours truly, are turned off by soft-skills training. At least some of the soft-skills training is, no doubt, onerous insomuch as it includes training a person to maintain a "professional attitude" for something like a construction job where you can curse like a sailor as long as you show up on time and get the job done. Save it. I'll pass.

5 – Many of the homeless have at least 10 years of work experience and just want to be immediately connected to living-wage employment that makes use of their already-acquired skills. A brief refresher course might be in order if they've not worked in their field of expertise for several years. They might just need assistance getting recertified for their trade, as opposed to just getting recertified for food stamps -- a hand up, not a hand-out.

I'm sure there are more reasons than I care to or could hope to enumerate here and now. Those are just a few quick answers off the top of my head. Reasons 1-3 might not be that difficult to address, especially since DHS (Dept. of Human Services) Director Zeilinger said at this meeting that DOES is gathering input on how it might change its hereto now rigid structure so as to better serve the homeless community. This willingness to change plays right into the hands of the advocates. After all, that's what advocates do – pressure government into changing (or adding to) what it does so as to better serve that government's constituency. It also lends itself to the notion that the poking and prodding of the advocacy community is finally paying off in a big way, thereby encouraging us to poke and prod all the more. Hooray!

I've always been baffled by the fact that DC Government – across multiple administrations – tends to respond best when the advocates are most aggressive and apply the most pressure. It seems to me to be more logical to respond as soon as they realize that an idea makes plenty of sense – to show us that we need not throw a temper tantrum in order to get an adequate response to a reasonable request. Be that as it may, if the temper tantrum gets the best response from government, then it's both logical and imperative that we the advocates throw more than a few of them. I definitely will.

Following former DC mayor Anthony William's failed 2006 attempt at giving the Franklin School Shelter building to developer Herb Miller, the successive mayor Adrian Fenty closed Franklin in conjunction with DC's implementation of the Permanent Supportive Housing program. WIN (the Washington inter-faith Network) which is a group of about 50 churches that do grassroots advocacy was instrumental in getting the city to buy into this federal program. That hardly amounts to a temper tantrum. However, there was negative media coverage (especially by the Washington Post) of the deplorable conditions at the DC General Family Shelter beginning in March 2010. This wasn't enough to convince former mayor Vince Gray (2011 to 2015) to address the matter. Then an 8-year old girl named Relisha Rudd was abducted from the shelter in early 2014 and the public pressure to address the matter went through the roof. (The roof of DC General was so dilapidated that it wasn't hard to get through.) This WAS indeed something of a temper tantrum – backing DC Government into a corner and forcing them to respond to the crisis.

In November 2015 the community of Foggy Bottom (a DC neighborhood) complained about a homeless tent city near the Watergate. That homeless contingent had been there for over 10 years with no one complaining. In recent months, a kind person began purchasing tents for many of the “street homeless”. That's when the Foggy Bottom community began to complain to city officials. Make what you will of that. In any instance, the city took action to shut the tent city down and promised to house this subset of the homeless community. (The latter remains to be seen.) Here we have housed people pitchin' a *itch about homeless people pitching tents and the city jumping to accommodate the housed by removing the homeless. A friend told me she plans to send homeless people to that location with tents so that they can get housing more quickly – bypassing the 10-year wait list for housing. So, the neighborhood's temper tantrum has inspired those who support the homeless to throw one of their own. Hmmm.

Back to the matter at hand. Being as a temper tantrum usually involves a little “leaping”, that reminds me that the Bowser administration has implemented the LEAP program which is designed to connect DC residents to city jobs. Those jobs can be in DC Government offices, with the transit system or with Water and Sewage (WASA) among other agencies and will, at some point, be expanded beyond just city jobs. Though LEAP is not just for homeless people, DOES is making a targeted effort to enroll homeless parents (average age 18 to 24) in this program. DOES also has a new mobile unit that is “jumping around” and doing outreach to certain distressed communities – especially the family shelter and “police service areas” (neighborhoods with high levels of juvenile/young adult crime – all BS aside). This is a part of the response to the family shelter crisis (and the fact that the number of homeless families is skyrocketing); but, it is also a response to a temper tantrum insomuch as the young people who are getting caught up in the “justice” system are being moved toward the front of the line for employment services. I'm glad they're being served, not at what's moving them toward the front of the line though. Break a window. Get a job. Sounds like a plan.

I pointed out at this meeting that what was being said there as well as what Mayor Muriel Bowser has recently said on the news point toward homeless people who are 25 to 60 years old being ignored by DC Government when it comes to employment. I was told that DC Gov is working on creating programs that are geared toward connecting homeless A-bods in this age group to employment,albeit AFTER the young people who are committing oft-violent crimes have been served. Temper tantrum. Let's hope the older, non-violent homeless live long enough to see that day. Shoot a dog (or a person, so long as it's below the waist). Get a job. Sounds like a plan.

This begins to explain DC's rise in crime. The criminals aren't bad people. They're just trying to increase their eligibility for a job program. It also represents progress. As I stated at this meeting, I was one of two people who several years ago organized a meeting to which a representative of the Public Defender's office was invited to speak to the homeless. About 50 homeless people who hoped to get their crimes expunged and land jobs attended. The PD rep stated right off the bat that 90% of crimes can not be expunged in DC. Half the room walked out, their hopes for employment having been shot down. Now, committing a crime before the age of 25 and having a child increase your chances of getting a job. That's progress. It makes me wish I were a 23-year old criminal/job seeker with a baby on the way. Temper tantrum.

As it turns out, a DOES client who proves to have at least three "debilitating factors" such as being homeless, having been incarcerated or having been a substance abuser increase one's eligibility for DOES programs and move them up the wait list for its employment programs. The first thing that jumps out at me when I consider this policy is the fact that a "debilitating factor" moves a person ahead of "fully able-bodied" people. However, I understand that special efforts to connect (partially) disabled people to jobs have been made for decades -- an idea which I fully support, so long as we aren't bypassing the best person for the job just because someone else is disabled.

Having been incarcerated or addicted come off to me as being "behavioral issues" more so than "debilitating factors". I fully support the arguments around mass incarceration and the underlying social injustice. I get that any returning citizen deserves a second chance. I also understand that many years of drug use can create a "debilitating factor" by frying the person's brain. I just find it peculiar that these behaviors make a person more of a priority for employment. I'm not sure that I'd want a person with a fried brain working beside me on some of the dangerous jobs I've done. It would seem to me that DOES took the vulnerability index which has been used by DHS to determine who needs to be housed first lest they die on the streets and has begun to use it to determine who gets job assistance first. If correct, this means that the same conditions that got someone who supposedly can't work place into housing quickly is now being used to determine who gets connected to work first. There's a certain irony to that.

 Following the meeting I asked Candy and Chloe of DOES if what they said about criminal and drug histories increasing your eligibility for these employment programs applied only to such activities if they were committed in DC and if the substance abuse or incarceration had to be recent. I was told that they probably didn't have to be recent – that the questionnaire asks if you “ever” were incarcerated (in jail OR prison) and if you were “ever” a substance abuser. However, they weren't certain if such activities committed outside of DC qualified. If you don't have a criminal record in DC and you need a job, smoke crack. Get caught by the cops. Apply at DOES upon your release. Sounds like a plan.

What's next, DOES picking a person up from the crack house and driving them to the employment program while the person hits their pipe??? Just sayin'... It was said that a person goes through a 30-day training period before being placed on a job site. Even so, someone who's 30 days clean could theoretically get the job before someone who is 10 years clean or who never used. That's not to speak of the fact that many drug users do day labor in order to support their habits. Obtaining a job after 30 days clean might end up "feeding the monster".

Reasons 4 and 5 on my list of why homeless people don't use the services of DOES pertain to the older homeless people (25 to 60) and are considerably harder to address than reasons 1-3. Those of us who've held jobs for multiple years don't need soft-skills training as to how to get up on time for work or how to conduct an interview. We just want jobs that use the skills we already have. I would guess that many of the homeless people in this age group don't care to get put into a DOES data base through which they'll start receiving dozens of e-mails about job openings only to find that they must now use funds they don't have in order to travel to 25-50 jobs that they won't get before finally landing a job for which they don't have financial resources to tide them over to the first check. (Try saying THAT 10 times quickly.)

I laud the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser (2015 to 2019) for undertaking this ambitious effort wherein DC Government, after many years and multiple failed plans to end homelessness, is finally starting to connect homeless people to employment – emphasis on “starting” insomuch as only about 10% of the city's homeless saw fit to enroll in DOES programs. Ya gotta “start” somewhere. I get that.

In past meetings my colleagues and I have raised the issue of connecting the issues of employment, living wage and affordable housing. That is to say that, when trying to connect homeless people to employment, we must be able to guarantee that the job will pay enough for the person to maintain a rental and will lead to them actually acquiring housing. After all, about half of the homeless actually work already. Go figure. The ICH's 5-year plan admits that a “housing wage” is$28.25 per hour in DC. This begs the question:

When does the duty of DOES to a homeless person end, when that person is employed at $11.50 per hour or when they make enough to maintain adequate housing?????

That's a good question for Deborah Carroll (who went from directing DHS to now directing DOES). Maybe this is the point at which her experience in both departments will be adjoined and manifested in all of its glory. Let's hope.

To be fair, I'll point out that President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law on July 22nd, 2014. This law authorizes, among other things, programs that will connect specific vulnerable populations (including drug users willing to work for a fix) with employers, providing the latter with the skilled laborers they seek. It was said at the ICH Executive Committee meeting that failure to comply with WIOA (which mandates collaboration across agencies and throughout the region), could lead to federal sanctions and/or a loss of future federal funding. The threat of losing federal dollars tends to get DC Government moving quickly -- a side effect of capitalism, no doubt. This begins to explain why DOES is suddenly ready to change its structure. It's also reminiscent of how DC Government has discussed either doing away with its "low-barrier shelter" designation (wherein a homeless resident is not required to engage in self-help programs) or merely changing the status of some such shelters to "high-" or "medium-barrier shelters" so as to comply with the HEARTH Act and continue to get the HUD money associated with compliance. Kristy Greenwalt was appointed by Vince Gray and retained by Mayor Muriel Bowser in order to bring DC into compliance with the HEARTH Act.

That said, a colleague and I will meet with 200 homeless people right before they are fed on the fourth Sunday of February and March at 9 AM at Asbury united Methodist Church. We'll present data we gathered from homeless people in 2015 concerning their employment challenges. We'll give attendees opportunities to add their input. We'll then bring this info to DC Government (hopefully with dozens of job-seeking homeless people accompanying us). While I'm not yet at liberty to invite government employees to address the crowd (and have no plans to do that anyway), I AM at liberty to mention what DOES is doing during my intro (and DO have plans to do so). It is with this in mind that I am reaching out to DOES and have already alerted two of its employees during the January 12th, 2016 meeting so that they might attend as quiet audience members. At any rate, the effort to connect 25 to 60-year old homeless people who don't have any recent crimes to jobs making at least $25.000 per hour has begun.

LATER ON JANUARY 12TH Obama gave his final State of the Union (SOTU) Address. As with past SOTU's, he acknowledged that technology is taking many jobs. However, he neither suggested that Americans work less hours per week so that more people could have jobs nor that we find a new method of expropriation and fair exchange that allows the abundance which is manufactured by robots to be distributed to the people those robots laid off. He stated "a fact without an act". Not my cup of tea. Even so, this fact figures largely into the difficulties that many people have finding work.

FINALLY, I should point out that I suffered a massive skull fracture at eight months old due to child abuse. I went on to finish high school with a 96.3% grade for my senior year, though I never attended college. Furthermore, I spent seven years smoking crack cocaine -- quitting cold-turkey in the early morning hours of August 1st, 2005 after arriving in DC on the previous night. When you consider that I can out-think six-figure-earning government administrators, it seems quite amazing. Maybe they should smoke some crack. They might think better. Just sayin'......


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