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The Intersection of Customized Employment and Homelessness

For over 35 years, people have known about best practices and evidence-based approaches to support employment for people with intellectual disabilities. Still a majority of job seekers only learn about and/or participate in systems that utilize ‘traditional’ job search approaches. Customized Employment and Guided Group Discovery (GGD) provide an orientation to the best practices of “supported employment” in a way that is accessible to job seekers hearing this information for the first time. Though a job seeker will likely need additional support beyond the group, Guided Group Discovery provides a place to start and can serve as an introductory boot camp for people who are starting to think about employment. Contrasting the ‘customized’ approach from the ‘traditional’ one provides a vehicle for changing the conversation from “Do you have work for me?” to “What am I looking for from work?” and ”What job would be the best fit for me?” It also pulls in partners so that jobseekers can benefit from services and supports offered by multiple systems, increasing their chances for success.

Creating a space for people to have ownership over their own job search is an interesting prospect, especially for those with complex barriers. St. John’s Community Services in Pennsylvania (SJCS-PA) has been working with men experiencing homelessness at Bethesda Project’s Our Brothers’ Place Shelter and youth living in communities of high intergenerational poverty at The Village of Arts and Humanities. For both groups, barriers include racial discrimination, gaps in or a lack of work history, food and housing insecurity, mental and behavioral health challenges, and a wide range of traumatic experiences. In the face of such systemic hardship, these individuals regularly showcase their ability to navigate complicated social and community-based services, manage complex and competing schedules, act with incredible patience and understanding, and demonstrate internal strength and unwavering persistence. Customized Employment and Guided Group Discovery provide the protected time and space to dig in and identify skills like these and to translate them into their potential contributions to an employer.

In the work SJCS-PA has done with the men at Our Brothers’ Place, one of the most powerful exercises completed was on in which participants were asked to practice their pitch to an employer. This included explaining why they were there (interests), why the owner would be making a good decision in hiring them (contributions), and what they needed from the employer in order to accept the job (conditions). It took significant effort for many of the participants to articulate anything beyond what they typically might have to offer a business. They needed to hear in their own voices that they believed they really have many skills and attributes that would benefit employers. For one participant in particular, it took over 10attempts before he was even able to make eye contact while confidently and succinctly making his pitch.    

In engaging job seekers with a disability or anyone with complex barriers to employment, it is also important to view the interaction through the lens of employment as a preventative public health intervention, in that it can improve health and lessen the chance that someone will live in poverty . Research has shown that the unemployment rate is twice as high for adults who have experienced four or more traumatic experiences as children compared to those that experienced zero, as measured by the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) questionnaire. Since 1977, the life expectancy rate has increased 5.3 years for men in the top half of the income distribution, but only 1.3 years for those in the bottom.  Low income Americans have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and other chronic disorders. In 2014 28% of working age adults with a disability were living below the poverty level. In fact, people with a disability are twice as likely to live in poverty as people without a disability.

The work SJCS-PA is doing with The Village of Arts and Humanities is part of the work to end the cycle of intergenerational poverty that disproportionally occurs in communities of color. The Village operates a robust array of programming for youth centered on the Arts, which we have operationalized for employment as encompassing the Creative Economy. We have completed the first in a series of focus groups to get insight into what the youth see as possible career paths in the community and what they feel are the opportunities that are available to them. This will influence the planning of Customized Employment and Guided Group Discovery to help meet them where they are at.

In the last session of the Guided Group Discovery group, we always focus on giving a detailed explanation of the Workforce and Vocational Rehabilitation resources in the community. We also assist jobseekers in building direct connections with specific contacts and provide weekly check-in phone calls. These partnerships are essential in making meaningful impact in our community. There are a lot of people who are in need of a living wage and a stable income. We will never be able to reach everyone and achieve outcome unless we all work together. Our work with the homelessness, workforce, vocational rehabilitation and community employment systems goes a long way to demonstrate that these partnerships can work.

Bethesda Project provides emergency shelter, housing and supportive services for 2,000 homeless and formerly homeless men and women in Philadelphia every year. By providing a home and safe environment, homeless individuals are able to stabilize and regain a sense of dignity and self-worth. Of all Bethesda Project’s residents, 65% have serious medical issues, 60% have mental illness diagnoses, and 45% have histories of addiction. Each resident and shelter guest at Bethesda Project’s 13 sites receives personalized, caring attention and is encouraged to achieve the most independent level of housing possible. Case managers work with guests and residents to overcome their individual challenges and set achievable, realistic goals.

The Village of Arts and Humanities (The Village) is a nationally renowned community arts organization based in North Philadelphia dedicated to neighborhood revitalization through the arts. They value the power of creativity as our most powerful and effective tool for catalyzing healthy and sustainable change. Their legacy is rooted in artist-facilitated community building, beginning with the work of our founders—dancer, choreographer and civil rights activist Arthur Hall (founder of Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center, predecessor to The Village) and civic practice artist Lily Yeh. Over 30 years, their work has evolved from a focus primarily on arts education and land transformation to a broader and intentional commitment to increasing all residents’ access to tools for creative self-actualization. The Village strives to create a nurturing, energized working environment that taps the creativity of its staff and the neighborhoods to generate programs that are highly supportive, dynamic, and inspiring.

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