Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Long Way Home

"We must be the change we wish to see."
-Ghandi


On October 15, 2007, I was invited to speak at the Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless’ (MCH) Annual Conference in Alexandria, Minnesota. The theme for this year’s conference was "Homelessness: Understanding the Beginning and Demanding an End." As a presenter, I was asked to share information about what my organization is doing to integrate customized employment assistance for individuals and families who are homeless and others at risk of homelessness who are dealing with housing crises.
I am a senior manager at Rise, Incorporated and we administer programs offering homelessness outreach and emergency services, transitional and affordable housing services, access to rental subsidy programs, individualized supported living services, adult rehabilitative mental health services, job placement, and supported employment services. At Rise, our signature expertise is supporting homeless individuals with serious mental illnesses (SMI), chemical health issues, and co-occurring disabilities (mental health and chemical dependency).
Most Minnesotans are unaware of the facts about homelessness in our State. According to the Wilder Research Center which studies homelessness issues in Minnesota, the total number of homeless and precariously housed individuals in our State is more than 20,000 individuals on any given night (Wilder Research Center, Homelessness in Minnesota Report, October 26, 2006). Wilder’s study helps to put a "face" on the real problems of homelessness within Minnesota. Here are some of the disturbing facts:
  • Children, youth, and young adults (under age 21) make up 47% of the total number who are homeless;
  • 69% of homeless women surveyed had dependent children under age 18 (and 55% had at least one child with them);
  • On any given night, 550-650 unaccompanied youth (under age 17) are without permanent shelter in Minnesota;
  • 89% of homeless youth are enrolled in school;
  • 51% of homeless youth are physically or sexually mistreated;
  • 33% of homeless adults reported staying in an abusive relationship because of no where else to live;
  • 54% had experienced long-term homelessness (continuously homeless for one year or four episodes in last four years);
  • 52% of homeless Minnesotans are living with a serious mental illness;
  • 69% had lived previously in institutional settings (i.e. psychiatric, correctional)
  • 65% leaving correctional facilities and 57% leaving other institutional settings did not have a stable place to live when they left;
  • 26% had less than a high school education;
  • 27% had some post-secondary education or training;
  • a disproportionate percentage of minority members had experienced homelessness;
  • Only 13% of all homeless individuals were working full-time;
  • 72% of all homeless Minnesotans were unemployed!
As one might guess from this list of statistical indices, no "one size fits all" formula will end the homelessness of all individuals or families in crisis. The pathways to social and economic self-dependency are quite complex and need to be addressed one individual at a time. And systemic challenges associated with ending homeless will indeed require collaborative, multi-disciplinary approaches pooling fiscal resources, expertise, and support services from an array of interested public and private, non-profit entities. I am proud to say that my organization has stepped up to the plate and we have been working to support homeless individuals for more than 20 years.
In my presentation, I tried to establish several fundamental principles about the critical importance of employment in ending homelessness. These principles are based on our first-hand experiences and include the following–
  1. We have no real chance of ending homelessness without connecting people to flexible, customized employment assistance;
  2. We are unlikely to see sustained recovery from SMI and chemical health challenges without connecting people to supported employment;
  3. We will struggle in developing suitable employment for many homeless individuals until we adopt customized employment practices and change what it means to be ‘qualified" in Minnesota’s workforce;
  4. We need to embrace an employment-first philosophy, policies, and expect everyone to work up to his or her capabilities;
  5. Employment assistance must become a priority and we need to integrate employment options within our network of homelessness services;
  6. Individualized employment goals and support must be rapid, flexible, and customized around the identified interests, preferences, skills, and strengths of each individual; and
  7. Business and community leaders must be a part of the solution by creating employment opportunities that are driven by existing labor opportunities and needs.
At Rise, we have tried to incorporate each of these principles into the work we do on behalf of homeless individuals. Last year alone, our agency received 548 calls concerning a homeless person or housing crisis situation. When homeless individuals are referred to us, our skilled outreach staff conduct an individualized assessment so we can determine what each individual wants and needs to obtain a safe, stable, and affordable housing option. Some people referred to Rise require emergency housing assistance and our dedicated staff work closely with these individuals and their families to guide them to safe shelter. Also, our agency provides temporary Transitional Housing Programs (THP) in support of individuals who need more time to develop self-dependency skills and find the right housing situation. Also, Rise offers ongoing supported living services and we assist people in locating permanent living arrangements that are a good match to their individual lifestyles and circumstances.
Rise operates 17 THP units with eight dedicated to families and nine set aside for shared housing for singles. In 2006, Rise’s THP housing units supported 27 families consisting of 53 individuals, 20 additional families were supported by our Family Homeless Prevention Program, and 53 individuals were assisted by our supported living services. Of course, the overall goal is to support individuals and families in stabilizing their living arrangements and moving forward with life goals for self-dependence.
Participants of Rise programs have access to an array of housing rental subsidies and other resources to support their transition to independent living. Although Rise’s Mental Health Housing staff provide an array of direct professional services, they also work with closely with County financial and social service case managers, child care providers, chemical health programs, mental health centers, local shelters and food shelves, housing subsidy providers, employers, secondary and post-secondary schools, adult basic education and GED programs, welfare assistance programs, police and correctional programs, one-stop workforce centers, faith-based programs, youth support programs, and other community support programs. Our underlying philosophy is "whatever it takes!"
Enrollment in our THP programs requires a commitment on the part of each individual to self-improvement. At Rise, we have established a culture that embraces the possibility of employment for all. And we expect this possibility by requiring a 20-hour a week commitment to self-development by each of our adult residents. For most individuals, this means finding a part-time or full-time job in the workforce. However, this policy also includes other productive engagements in post-secondary education, job training programs, volunteer work, or other pathways to career development goals. In short, we expect people using our homelessness outreach services, THP units, and supported living services to work. Why? Productive employment and other self-improvement activities are a key factor to program outcome success.
During my presentation, I shared the success stories of several program participants who were once homeless and had advanced to self-dependency with support. I shared the fascinating story about "Janice" who was referred to our agency from a battered woman’s shelter. Janice was not only living in an abusive relationship but was receiving welfare assistance, addicted to methamphetamine drugs, unemployed, and living at the shelter with her three dependent sons. After enrolling with Rise, Janice organized a new life plan with fundamental changes in every direction. Today, she is living in a rent-to-own home and works full-time for a staffing company as a professional recruiter. She earns an excellent wage, has taken on additional responsibilities in adopting her niece, and has embraced long-term career goals. Janice has not only turned her life around and beat a challenging"meth" addiction but now speaks publically with youth about the risks and hardships of drug addiction.
Also, I shared a heartwarming story about a young man named "Fred" who lives with co-occurring disabilities of SMI and alcohol dependency. In addition to chronic homelessness and unemployment, Fred also had brushes with the criminal justice system. Once he enrolled with Rise, he was supported in organizing an individualized plan for housing stability, self-dependency, and addressing his alcohol addiction. Today, Fred is living independently and working as a skilled furniture and cabinet maker. He confronted his alcohol addiction and completely turned his life around. Fred has earned enough money to leave Social Security disability benefits and now supports a family. He has since married and lives with his wife and new born son in an apartment in the local community.
Finally, I shared the remarkable story about a middle-aged man named "Jeffrey" who lives with co-occurring disabilities of SMI and alcohol/drug dependency. A high school dropout, unemployed, homeless, and struggling with chemical dependency demons, Jeffrey tried suicide three times. The last episode left him in a coma and resulted in physical weakness and paralysis after experiencing a stroke. In addition to engaging THP support at Rise, Jeffrey chose to go to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to address his chronic alcohol abuse. He also enrolled with a local adult education program and successfully completed his GED. Rise’s supported employment program assisted Jeffrey in securing a part-time job while he began the process of pursuing a college education. He recently passed his college entrance exams and is now awaiting word on his financial assistance application to attend a local college. Jeffrey is hoping to pursue a career studying broadcast engineering.
In summary, I really enjoyed my interactions and exchanges with members of MCH at their annual fall training conference. MCH represents more than 150 member organizations throughout Minnesota and they are clearly a hardworking group of professionals, concerned citizens, and self-advocates. The members I met were non-judgmental and able to see the humanity in all people. If there is a group capable of offering leadership on ending homelessness in Minnesota, it is MCH. And I truly appreciate their growing recognition about the critical role of competitive employment in addressing this issue head on.
You know, ending homelessness and poverty in America is a responsible and worthy goal. However, it is going to take more than creating better access to emergency housing services, public subsidies, and safety nets for people. Ending homelessness and long-term poverty will require higher clarity around goals that lead to individual development and economic self-reliance. Of course, I realize there are no short cuts to eradicating these complex problems. That said, I do know this–It’s a long way home without a stable, good paying job.

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