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Saffron Strand’s 2013 Conference – “Developing the Homeless Workforce: What Will It Take?” June 17-18 in Richmond — provided professional training and public education focused on getting more homeless and hard-to-employ people back to work.

The Conference brought together nationally recognized experts and local Bay Area authorities to concentrate on reducing homelessness through employment. Participants learned about integrating housing, health care, and employment services while conserving limited public and private resources. Documented research and practical experience in innovative programs played a big part in the Conference, which demonstrated how professionals and others working in many fields can help support the transition into gainful, sustainable employment.

Plenary sessions, luncheon keynote, 20 workshops, and other activities comprised the main content of the Conference. Top Conference presenters included:

  • Virginia Hamilton (Regional Administrator, U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration, San Francisco, CA)
  • Lena Robinson (Regional Manager, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA)
  • David Butler (Senior Adviser, Health and Barriers to Employment Policy Area, MDRC, New York, NY)
  • Melissa DaSilva (Deputy Director, National Health Care for the Homeless Council, Nashville, TN)
  • Paul Leon (CEO and President, Illumination Foundation, Irvine, CA)
  • Jeff Olivet (CEO and President, Center for Social Innovation, Needham, MA)
  • Dr. Don Schweitzer (Pacific University, Forest Grove, OR)
  • Paul Curtis (Executive Director, California Coalition for Youth, Sacramento, CA)
  • Erica Evans (Director, Job Corps Sacramento Center, Sacramento, CA)

About 130 professionals and others working with the homeless, as well as public officials, volunteers, and concerned citizens participated in the 2013 Conference. They came from 10 counties in California and 8 other states. Participants’ job titles ranged from agency director and company CEO to city council member to homeless outreach coordinator and volunteer project assistant. Conference participants had diverse educational backgrounds, including a variety of social science and health care bachelor’s and master’s degrees, along with MD, PhD, MPA, and some with “some college” and “high school/GED.”

Main Results of the “Overall Evaluation”

Participants evaluated the Conference through anonymous voluntary questionnaires (“Overall Evaluation” with 17% response rate and individual “Workshop Evaluations”). More than 90% of questionnaire respondents rated overall quality of the Conference as “excellent” or “good.” Scores for plenary sessions and workshops were very high. Fully 100% of respondents rated the quality of the conference workshops as “excellent” or “good.”

What it’s going to take to develop the homeless workforce was the focus of the Monday plenary. The following were some of the participants’ comments:

  • “This plenary presents valuable translation of policy into practice, now we need the next step to application.”
  • “These speakers deserve greater attendance with outreach a broader audience – they are so good led by a good moderator (Stephen Baiter, Executive Director, Contra Costa County Workforce Development Board).”
  • “I appreciate having quality training available locally.”
  • “This is useful information. It’s important to hear about research into employment of homeless people.”

Monday’s National Networking Luncheon featured Jeff Olivet’s keynote on “The Crossroads of Racism and Homelessness,” which elicited many positive comments, including: “Discussion on racism is a critical component in all programs to help the homeless. We need experts in California to address this issue.” Olivet also conducted a well-attended workshop on homelessness and racism.

Tuesday’s plenary zeroed in on getting homeless, runaway, and foster-care youth into the workforce. Conference participants especially appreciated hearing about Dr. Don Schweitzer’s pioneering research into what services youths themselves accept as most useful. For example: “I really appreciate Dr. Schweitzer’s research-based approach and look forward to applying his approach, ‘Ask directions and they will come’.”

participants chose to attend the Conference for a variety of reasons, ranking the top five reasons as (1) “program reputation,” (2) “professional development,” (3) “plenary/keynote speakers,” (4) “low cost/scholarship,” and (5) “recommendation of colleague or employer.”

What participants liked best about the Conference (sample comments, in their own words):

  • “It was out-of-the-box forward thinking. It is building toward a new vital shift in understanding how we break the homeless cycle.”
  • “Excellent experts across the country to explore new approaches to reduce homelessness.”
  • “Topics on racism, LGBTQ youth, research on transitional employment, senior unemployment, SS (Saffron Strand) volunteers at the front desk, food, Monday night get-together.”
  • “Networking.”
  • “Meeting diverse partners in homeless and workforce development service providers and learning scope of work.”

Key Findings and Future Direction

Saffron Strand’s 4th Annual Conference built on the multi-discipline foundation of previous Conferences to establish the priority of employment for all professionals involved with the homeless, hard-to-employ, and other vulnerable, low-income populations. The 2013 Conference introduced a new term — “homeless workforce” – which describes the challenge and calls up the opportunity associated with the under-appreciated and largely untapped employment potential.

Key findings of Saffron Strand’s 2013 Conference “Developing the Homeless Workforce: What Will It Take?” include:

  • Emerging consensus on the critical need to develop the homeless workforce: This consensus is growing among professionals in diverse disciplines who work with the homeless as well as among responsible government agencies, non-profit organizations, civic leaders, and concerned citizens. It is a response to the increasingly scarce availability of resources to support the homeless and those at risk of homelessness. It also reflects a reaction to unsustainable conventional programs and the desire for new approaches to increase the economic independence of very low-income people and reduce their reliance on public and charitable assistance.
  • Deeper understanding of challenges of getting the homeless back to work: Extensive research shows there are serious shortcomings in conventional transitional employment, supportive employment, paid job training, and other subsidized and unsubsidized employment programs for low-income people, including the homeless and “hard-to-employ.” In addition, long-established programs to provide support for people with disabilities – such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – may be having the unintended effect of increasing dependent populations, including significant numbers of the homeless.
  • Recognition of employment as an equal priority – side by side with health care and housing – for those who work with the homeless, along with confirmation of the critical need for collaboration across the entire “continuum of care and transition out of homelessness”: To really reduce homelessness requires that more of the homeless who can work actually do achieve gainful, sustainable employment. More health care providers now understand how “employment is health care,” given the therapeutic effects of employment-oriented practice in their homeless clients and consumers. Innovative “wrap-around” programs serving the homeless – which include housing, case management, medical, mental health, and workforce services – are succeeding in increasing economic self-sufficiency and reduce dependency on the community at large.
  • Identification of new community partners: For example, responsibilities of the U.S. Federal Reserve include fostering community and workforce development. For the first time, one of the Federal Reserve’s regional banks – the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco – states that integrating the homeless successfully into the workforce is an emerging issue of interest. The Fed joins other non-traditional partners – including members of California’s Workforce Investment Boards like the Contra Costa County Workforce Development Board – in exploring development of the homeless workforce.
  • New thinking and action across the nation, California, and the San Francisco Bay Area focused on developing the homeless workforce: The findings described above are helping Conference participants to crystallize their thinking about the employment potential of the homeless and hard-to-employ. Innovative approaches and best practices learned at the Conference enable them to help their clients and consumers realize their employment potential. When the homeless and those at risk of homelessness get back to work, everybody benefits.
  • Saffron Strand action: The findings of the 2013 Conference also are sparking interest in a new national coalition to focus on developing the homeless workforce. Conference participants interested in learning more about the coalition are welcome to contact Saffron Strand.

Our 2013 Conference – “Developing the Homeless Workforce: What Will It Take?” – provides a clear path to move forward in professional training and public education. For the 2014 Conference, we are going to be able to hone in on development of key components of the homeless workforce. We already are responding to requests for “Certification of Completion” for up to 12 hours of professional development for the 2013 Conference and look forward to pioneering a national curriculum of employment services for training and workforce development for the homeless and hard-to-employ.


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