How an Employment Program for Homeless Adults Both Challenged and Confirmed My Biases

By Abe Oudshoorn

First off, a confession of a personal bias: I haven’t had a lot of time for employment-focused programs within the homeless serving sector. For sure I respect the work of training and employment readiness programs in a sector of its own, but my experiences working front-line leave me with the general impression that most folks with chronic and persistent experiences of homelessness have temporary or permanent work-limiting challenges. Employment always felt like a niche solution for a select few who would already be most inclined to successfully exit homelessness without support. And calls for employment as a solution to homelessness felt like a classist assumption regarding the cause (as if there is only one) of homelessness. Invariably in any public talk about homelessness that includes a Q & A some guy gets up and scolds everyone about talking about anything other than employment as the true solution.

However, I like to test and challenge my biases and one of the pleasures of reading research is to expand and nuance one’s preconceptions. That’s why I chose to dig into “Is Work an Answer to Homelessness? Evaluating an Employment Programme for Homeless Adults” by Joanne Bretherton and Nicholas Pleace. The title is intriguing and the answer to the question proved to be both reaffirming and challenging to me.

Bretherton and Pleace begin by laying out some vital points about employment programs in the context of homelessness, adding points both in favour of and against over-reliance on such programs:

• Welfare responses to homelessness meet basic needs but don’t necessarily build the same socioeconomic integration as employment.

• Employment models are diverse including work readiness, supported placements, or work-providing, each with strengths and limitations and working differentially depending on labour markets or on varying needs of individuals being supported.

• Employment programs offered as a requirement of welfare may actually be used as sanctions against people if requirements are not met.

These points from the literature demonstrate the objectivity with which the authors approach their study, opening by acknowledging both the potential and the risks of such models.

Their study itself was a formative and summative evaluation of an employment program offered out of six centres in six communities in the UK. The programs focused on work-readiness for individuals through various training and development, along with supports to increase stability including enhancing health and housing stability. Participants were required to be sober and not display “challenging behavior”. The evaluation involved a mixed methods analysis engaging 83 of the participants.

Biases Challenged

The analysis challenged my biases in that 39% returned to paid work and 18% to education or training. The skeptic in me expected that all of these would be those who had become recently unemployed or who had strong employment records prior to homelessness, but instead 33% were “integrating economically for the first time”. The authors also highlighted how the programs are based upon choice, which varies from many ‘workfare’ based jurisdictions where such employment readiness is a requirement of accessing social assistance. These results suggested there is space within the homeless-serving sector for employment readiness programs.

Biases Confirmed

On the other hand, it was also clear that participants were a select group not necessarily representative of the diversity nor a majority of those experiencing homelessness. These were individuals who self-selected into an employment readiness program and were able to maintain sobriety and not have “challenging behaviours”. Conceivably, these individuals might access employment assistance programming offered outside of the homeless sector. Secondly, many of the participants quite valued the time spent in the activities, felt better and socialized with others, but saw no advancement in terms of work-readiness. That is, when you provide people with a comfortable environment and meaningful activities they will make use of these and feel an enhanced sense of well-being, without any necessary relationship to getting a job. If you build programming, people will come.

The Big Picture “Ah-Hah”

The most important new idea for me that I had never fully considered was that even those who were “successfully” employed through their engagement with the programs either remained homeless or simply moved to precarious housing. Most only obtained precarious employment such as casual or part-time work and minimal wages, in a social context of dire housing unaffordability. Therefore, employment was not a magic wand of housing stability within countries experiencing “widespread in-work poverty” and “ultra-concentration of society’s financial resources within tiny elites”.

So, ultimately, I’m going to both be more accepting of the idea of work readiness programs within the homeless sector while recognizing that these must go hand-in-hand with a rights-based approach to housing and significant policy changes to make affordability of housing a reality.

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