Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Employment and Income Supports for Homeless People. U.S. Department of Labor


The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) concentrates on the employment and training needs of all Americans, including those who are homeless. Many of its mainstream programs operate under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which funds state and local workforce development systems.[14]  These systems place great emphasis on universal access to services and local planning and control  principles that help determine the services that are provided  and not provided  to homeless people. WIA created a national infrastructure in which state workforce boards oversee the local Workforce Investment Boards (WIBs) that control the funding and employment services within their jurisdictions. At the heart of the system are some 3,500 One-Stop Career Centers operated by 600 WIBs.[15]  States and localities are given broad discretion to design and operate their systems to meet state and local needs.[16]

One-Stop Employment Centers

WIA-funded programs are intended to provide access to employment-focused assistance to all individuals in need of help, including hard-to-serve people such as homeless families and individuals. A person needing employment assistance should be able to obtain, through WIAs One-Stop Centers, information and services from the various federal agencies that provide help finding jobs and advancing in the labor market. However, the WIA system is not designed to pay special attention or deliver specially tailored services to people who are homeless. Indeed, DOL does not currently count the number of homeless adults or homeless dislocated workers served by WIA and apparently has no plans to do so in the future (counting homeless clients is not mentioned in DOLs Strategic Plan for 20062011). Under WIAs predecessor, the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA), about 2 percent of the 151,580 individuals served in 1998 by JTPAs adult programs were homeless; and 2.4 percent of JTPA participants in 1994 were homeless (GAO, 2000). A subsequent report estimated that 416,000 WIA participants received training in program year 2003 (GAO, 2005). If the estimated percentage of homeless participants in JTPA applies to WIA, then perhaps 8,00010,000 people who are homeless are served annually under WIA. However, given WIAs demanding performance requirements (which discourage programs from working with hard-to-serve clients), the percentage of WIA participants who are homeless might be less than under JTPA.

Participants seeking assistance through One-Stop Centers are supposed to receive services designed to meet individual needs. However, evaluation research findings offer several reasons to think this may not be happening in the case of homeless individuals. First, while customer choice is promoted through Individual Training Accounts (ITAs), which allow individuals to choose the kind of training they want, resources for these accounts are limited.[17]  GAOs assessment of ITAs (2000) concluded that (1) the dollar value of the ITAs may not be sufficient to meet the training needs of homeless individuals who require more intensive services, (2) the network of qualified providers may not include enough providers with expertise in meeting the needs of hard-to-serve populations, and (3) homeless people may find the vouchers difficult to use and may not be in a position to choose the training programs most suitable for their needs. A more recent study, which focused on persons seeking employment assistance from One-Stop Centers in Chicago, found that most job seekers who were homeless did not receive the assistance they needed (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, 2005).

Second, most One-Stop Centers are not able to provide special guidance to homeless individuals about how to use the available resources. Only a few centers have staff with suitable training to work with homeless clients. Selected WIBs in about half the states have received special funding for Disability Program Navigators (DPNs), staff who are specially trained to facilitate access to services and benefits for workers who are disabled.

DOL also funds the Comprehensive Employment Program (CEP) in eight sites (made up of WIBs or groups of WIBs) around the country. The CEPs provide employer-linked services, such as job carving and restructuring, to a small number of people with disabilities. It is unlikely that more than a fraction of the disabled people served by these special programs are homeless (no estimates are available), but a largely qualitative evaluation of these services (Holcomb & Barnow, 2004) offers hope that approaches like these would be successful if operated on a larger scale.

Third, the One-Stop Career Center system, as currently designed, discourages centers from serving homeless people. DOLs Office of Disability Employment Policy conducted an evaluation of pilot employment programs to identify policy and practices concerns that would improve employment outcomes for people with disabilities served by the centers. Project staff told the evaluators that the current indicators of performance for workforce investment activities under WIA are a disincentive to serving customers with disabilities, including people who are homeless. Several project sites noted that state and federal policies, such as WIA performance measures, impede the ability of One-Stop Centers to provide needed services to hard-to-serve clients.[18]  Thus, the demonstration projects have tended to enroll participants they gauge will be successful in finding employment, helping the projects meet the performance measures. The One-Stop Centers were consequently reluctant to enroll participants with disabilities and other severe problems. Some members of the WIA system also said they were reluctant to participate in these pilot projects, because they feared they would be penalized as their staff members took on time-consuming responsibilities that negatively affected their WIA-defined performance (Elinson et al., 2005). Such observations are consistent with those reported elsewhere (GAO, 2000).

A number of individual WIBs and One-Stop Centers have sought to do more for the homeless population. Some have partnered with homeless assistance agencies or have developed employment and training services for job seekers who are homeless, often using McKinney Supportive Housing Program (SHP) dollars. Others have enrolled homeless job seekers in WIA services or have secured funding to enhance their core services to meet the needs of homeless populations. As part of a national evaluation of WIA implementation, cases studies focused on One-Stop Centers serving homeless job seekers in three areas: Tucson, Arizona, Portland, Oregon, and Portland, Maine. These sites were selected because of their experience and innovative strategies for working with people who are homeless. All were connected to community networks of homeless service providers, which appeared to increase their effectiveness. The three sites had service strategies that emphasized job placement over job training, but also provided supports (including assessment and case management services) intended to produce greater success for homeless individuals. Finally, the sites had local political support that helped promote effective partnership strategies and the linking of mainstream resources (Henderson-Frakes, 2004).

Alternatives to conventional job services have also been used as employment strategies for people who are homeless: day labor programs (now referred to as contingent labor) and social purpose business ventures. In a review of 27 staffing services, including services that provide temporary jobs for homeless people, researchers suggest that these services can play a unique role in addressing the needs of disadvantaged job seekers in ways more conventional job services do not. They conclude that access to these jobs is less difficult for those with barriers to employment than jobs they are able to find at One-Stop Centers. The jobs offered do not require a long-term commitment; the brokering service agency has an investment in the jobs and acts as a protective buffer for those who would find it difficult to interact directly with employers. Community organizations provide temporary-job brokering specifically to disadvantaged workers, often in conjunction with career counseling, transportation assistance, and other supports; in some instances the brokering agency offers health care benefits to workers (Carre et al., 2003).

Other Mainstream DOL Employment Programs

In addition to One-Stop Centers, other Department of Labor programs that sometimes include homeless people within their service populations are the Adult and Dislocated Worker Program and the WIA Youth Program. The Adult and Dislocated Worker Program serves people who have been terminated or laid off, have received a notice of termination or layoff, or are eligible for or have exhausted unemployment insurance. The Youth Program provides services to low-income youth (age 1421) with barriers to employment. Eligible youth are deficient in basic skills or are homeless, runaway, pregnant or parenting, offenders, school dropouts, or foster children.

Another DOL initiative that included homeless people among its service population was the Welfare-to-Work (WtW) Grants program, which was designed to help the most disadvantaged TANF recipients leave the rolls and become employed. The program was the subject of a large-scale evaluation (Mills et al., 2006).[19]  The sites in the WtW Grants demonstration generally provided services, such as job search assistance, geared to moving welfare recipients rapidly into jobs in the labor market. The WtW enrollees generally had characteristics associated with disadvantages in the labor market  including being an unmarried parent with young children, having little education or work experience, and experiencing work-limiting health problems  although the enrollees in some sites appeared to be less disadvantaged than those in other sites. Two years after entering WtW programs, 4 in 10 enrollees were working  a much higher proportion than at program entry  and nearly two-thirds worked at some point in the second year. Receipt of TANF and poverty rates both declined substantially.

Three of the sites in this demonstration (in Chicago, Ft. Worth, and Nashville) funded organizations that specialized in serving homeless families and persons with mental or physical disabilities. In addition, enrollees in three other sites (Boston, Milwaukee, and Phoenix) exhibited high rates of homelessness shortly after program entry. The evaluation findings indicate that these rates fell significantly by the end of the second year in Boston and Phoenix, but not Milwaukee. A significant reduction in homelessness was also found for Yakima, Washington.

DOL Employment Programs for Homeless People

The Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP) awards funds on a competitive basis to eligible applicants such as state workforce boards and local WIBs; public agencies; commercial entities; and nonprofit organizations, including faith-based and community-based organizations.[20]  Administered by DOLs Veterans Employment and Training Service, it is a modest program with an annual appropriation of about $25 million supporting 87 grantees in 2006. It funds services to assist in reintegrating veterans who are homeless into meaningful employment within the labor force and to stimulate the development of effective service delivery systems that address the complex problems facing homeless veterans. In the Departments last program report on HVRP, 13,725 homeless veterans were served, 61 percent of those seeking assistance entered employment, and 58 percent retained employment for six months. The key program-effectiveness metric used in the report, average wage at placement, was $10.11 (greater than both the average wage in previous years and DOLs goal for HVRP). In program year 2004, the HVRPs average cost per placement ($2,152) was less than the average cost per participant during the same year under other DOL programs for special population groups, the Dislocated Worker program ($3,318) and the Employment Opportunities for Youth and Adults with Disabilities program ($2,882).[21]

DOL, jointly with HUD, is sponsoring a federal five-year demonstration for Ending Chronic Homelessness through Employment and Housing, in partnership with Local Workforce Investment Boards in Boston, Indianapolis, Portland, Oregon, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.[22]  Projects are expected to make use of evidenced-based and best practices to address mental health and addiction disorders and provide customized employment  a job placement service in which the service provider negotiates with the employer to customize a job to reflect the special needs of the client. Nearly all participants have been served with grant resources; few were enrolled in WIA-funded services. Housing retention rates for the comparable period are not available. However, at mid-course of this demonstration, 484 chronically homeless, mostly single, adult men had been served. Half were African American, and 63 percent reported a psychiatric or emotional disability at intake. In terms of income supports, 25 percent were receiving SSI, 21 percent were receiving food stamps, and 14 percent were working either full- or part-time at intake. After 33 months of grant awards, projects reported an entered-employment rate of 51 percent (competitive) and a 22 percent rate at which participants were placed in non-competitive employment activity. For participants for whom data were available, those in competitive employment worked an average of 28 hours per week and started at $9.06 per hour (Palan, Elinson, & Frey, 2006).

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