DC Dept. Of Employment Services: Working to End Homelessness

A Howard University Sociology professor whose Marxist study group I was part of (though I'v never been a university student) used to say:

"There are 20 years that don't make a day; then, there's that day that makes 20 years
 [worth of effort]".

When about a dozen men -- including myself -- began advocating against the closure of the Franklin School Shelter in June 2006, one of our arguments was that Franklin's location in downtown and near many public transportation options made it a perfect location for the working homeless to get to and from work. Additionally, my personal efforts to get city officials to address the employment challenges of homeless people are well-documented on-line as far back as mid-2009 -- with similarly documented efforts by my advocacy colleagues going back about that far as well. I now have some great news: DC Government has heard our cries and is beginning to take action!!!

As you may well know by now, Obama signed the Workforce Innovations and Opportunities Act into law on July 22nd, 2014. Though it requires cities to do better at connecting all people who have employment challenges to living-wage jobs, it may lack the teeth to effectively force municipalities to get results. Even so, its passage has served as the impetus for efforts by DC Government to assist the employable portion of its 8,350 or so homeless people (out of 670,000 or so residents) to jobs. It's worth noting that, to some degree, it's the good hearts of homeless service providers and the aggressiveness of advocates which gets results -- in this case, homeless employment results which I'm happy to say are on the horizon.

Over 10 years of advocating, combined with a healthy mixture of analysis, cynicism and pessimism, have led me to conclude that the sloppy mixture of local politicians and business people that the city has seen since 1999 has been reluctant to make DC affordable to low-income workers who contribute to the life of the city. However, the administration of Mayor Muriel Bowser may very well begin to reverse this negative trend. Let's hope it's not too little, too late. But let's also push for the furtherance of good ideas that have been put into play and for the implementation of those that have only been talked about. Otherwise, a good idea turns into a token effort and dies on the vine. We must work at putting able-bodied homeless people to work.

I attended the executive committee meeting of the DC Inter-agency Council on Homelessness on October 11th, 2016. During this meeting the Director of DC Government's Department Of Employment Services (DOES), Deborah Carroll, gave a presentation about her department's new and modified programs for effectively assisting homeless people at overcoming their employment challenges. (These efforts don't yet include addressing employers' bias against the homeless; but, I trust that they soon will.) As Ms. Carroll spoke, it became apparent to me that she'd either attained perfection or come extremely close. Everything she said was music to my ears insomuch as it spoke to the various issues that many homeless advocates had been raising for about 10 years. Her transition from directing Human Services where she served the city's poor and homeless people to directing Employment Services is beginning to bear fruit.

Director Carroll's statements included the following:

1 -- She noticed that the homeless adults who use the Adams Day Shelter were being afforded tables at which to sleep or watch TV, but not much else. They weren't being actively engaged by service providers so as to enroll in programs that would grow them beyond homelessness. (Her statements aside, I noticed the same thing when I visited this past summer to check out this program that opened in October 2015.) DOES now places a more aggressive representative on-site every Thursday -- the only day that the department visits that site.

2 -- Director Carroll understands that shelter check-in times don't work well for homeless workers and job seekers. Shelter check-in can begin as early as 4 PM and end as late as 8 PM. By the time that a person returns from their job that ends at 5:30 PM, all beds might be full. With most shelters being closed from 7 AM to 7 PM, second and third shift workers might have difficulty getting adequate sleep and might even need to sleep on the street until they save enough money for first, last and security. This makes it difficult to show up to work well-rested and clean.

3 -- She understands that storage of one's belongings can be a problem. Shelters don't always allow residents to store their belongings during the day. Homeless job seekers might need to carry everything they own with them as they search for employment, though the employed homeless can usually afford storage units. (I think it would be a good idea for the city to pay a $35.00 or so fee per month for storage of a serious, program-compliant job seeker's meager belongings.)

4 -- Deborah Carroll is floating the idea of assisting homeless job seekers with transit fare and ensuring that they can have their transit debit cards reloaded without having to make the time-consuming trek to the DOES office. All of that makes a lot of sense.

5 -- She is discussing bringing DOES programs like Project Empowerment into the homeless community -- holding sessions at the MLK, Jr. Library and at other locations where many homeless people can be found during the day. After all, the DOES office and the Adams Day Shelter are both quite far from downtown Washington, DC and the homeless people of the nation's capital might be reluctant or unable to make it to either site -- most likely the former.

6 -- A big winner with Yours Truly is Director Carroll's idea to allow homeless job seekers to skip the soft-skills training for low-skill jobs like working at the Department of Public Works (DPW) as a garbage man. I've always been adverse to the idea of spending an inordinate amount of time teaching someone how to present in a professional manner just so that they can throw garbage or swing a sledge hammer on a job where they're allowed to curse like a sailor all day long.

I also prefer that my initial engagement with an employer be at the moment when I'm demonstrating my abilities as a worker rather than during the interview. I'm one of those people who, though not the most personable, can and will work hard and well. The requirement to be personable during an interview is something I hate with a passion. I hate putting on a facade. People like myself who've worked out of labor halls can attest to the fact that employers who order workers just for the day get to know our work first -- without any prerequisite background checks or consideration of work history. Everything is just for the moment and just for the day. Employers who like the performance of the day laborers sometimes ask that they come on as permanent employees. (It's happened to me thrice.) The application and interview are then relegated to secondary, pro forma events -- with the job having already been promised on account of the good work that the employer has already witnessed. Such a process makes the worker's past a thing of the past.

This concludes my list of ideas that DOES Director Deborah Carroll mentioned on October 11th. However, it DOES NOT conclude the list of great things her department is doing. Read on.....

On October 19th I attended Project Homeless Connect which was held at the Central Union Mission (C.U.M.). Various service providers were on-site to connect the homeless to housing, employment, medical care, hair cuts and other necessities. DOES was present with its Workforce on Wheels RV. As I entered, I was greeted by cordial employees of whom one introduced me to an awesome career assessment website which effectively determined a whole slew of jobs that I'm suited for -- though many of them don't pay the $60,000 per year that I need to make to afford DC rents. I was quite impressed with the site, though technical problems prevented me from printing or e-mailing the results of the assessment. Even so, I'd recommend this site for others.

All things considered, I have high hopes for the homeless employment efforts of DOES. This is just the beginning. It's worth reiterating that we need to push for the furtherance of good ideas that are in play and for the implementation of good ideas that have only been talked about. That said, I'm all-in and will do all I can to keep a good thing going -- and getting better. Will you???

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