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Research dating back to the 1970s tracks a variety of employment programs for the “hard-to-employ,” including the homeless and other recipients of public assistance. The record shows only limited success in actually improving long-term employment of participants.

The current generation of “transitional employment” programs provide various combinations of paid job training or subsidized temporary employment:

  • The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research showed that even before the recession we still had a great deal to learn about how to cost-effectively optimize training and employment for the homeless (e.g. “Employment and Income Supports for Homeless People” by David Long, John Rio, and Jeremy Rosen, and “Accountability, Cost-Effectiveness, and Program Performance: Progress Since 1998” by Dennis Culhane, PhD, Wayne Parker, PhD, Barbara Poppe, Kennen Gross, MPH, and Ezra Sykes, MPA). Click for source.
  • More recently, the Department of Labor helped fund a study, “Alternative Employment Strategies for Hard-to-Employ TANF Recipients” authored by Erin Jacobs and Dan Bloom (MDRC, December 2011), which analyzed the effectiveness of different “transitional employment” programs over a 4-year period and concluded that “it can be difficult to engage welfare recipients in extensive pre-employment services long enough to significantly improve their employability.” Click for source.
  • Matthew Doherty (Regional Coordinator, U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, who spoke at Saffron Strand’s 2012 conference) has noted research on employment of the formerly incarcerated (“Returning to Work after Prison: Final Results from the Transitional Jobs Reentry Demonstration,” May 2012) which also found disappointing longer-term outcomes. Click for source.
  • Other research has confirmed the poor performance of conventional transitional employment and “welfare-to-work” programs in which the homeless and other low-income unemployed persons receive a stipend or subsidized wages for on-the-job training or low-skill, menial employment. For example, click here and here.

A conventional transitional employment program tends to pigeon-hole the worker as a landscape laborer, janitor, maintenance “gofer,” etc. Such a program confines the person’s expectations to the bottom of the hierarchy of needs – food, shelter, and maybe a little “walking around money.” If homeless people do a job just for the money or just to maintain benefits, then they are not building the sort of skills that transfer to real-world employment. They do not have a vision of their own future beyond their immediate needs.

Another approach for the homeless seeking employment may be to contact local workforce development or employment agencies that serve other job seekers. In Richmond and Contra Costa County, the “One-Stops” are not helping the homeless in the way they help other low-income clients, primarily because the homeless present many barriers to employment. The homeless represent high-risk clients in conventional workforce development and employment programs, resulting in high failure rates and poor outcomes for the agencies.

Research shows that conventional approaches to transitional employment and workforce development only rarely achieve long term employment for the homeless and others who are hard-to-employ. The current institutionalized structure and “top-down” management of these programs is expensive and unsustainable in a low-budget, outcomes-focused future. Despite ongoing tinkering, such programs are not likely to work, especially as continued funding for high-cost, low-return programs is problematic.

Nonetheless, getting the homeless back to work in the private sector for the long term is crucial for reducing homelessness and poverty. Improving the employability and long-term employment reduces dependence on public assistance, including subsidized housing, health care, and other services. When the working homeless increase their economic self-sufficiency and begin to work their way out of homelessness, government agencies and private charities can concentrate their efforts on those in our communities who are utterly helpless and vulnerable.

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