Finding work in a down economy is no easy task. It’s not any easier when you’ve been down and out of the workforce for years, either. While it’s difficult enough for the homeless or low-income Utahn to find a job they can apply for, it doesn’t get any easier for an employer reading applications that list a homeless shelter for an address or medical problems ranging from drug-addiction histories to combat-induced post-traumatic-stress disorders.
Since March, a homeless-issues group of state agencies like the Department of Workforce Services and nonprofit shelter The Road Home have been prepping low-income residents of the supportive housing unit Palmer Court at 999 S. Main on getting back into the workforce. While the pilot jobs program is making clear progress, it still struggles on how to both get its clients 9-to-5 ready and also how to get local businesses to see its clients as competitive candidates instead of bad business.
Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, is working on a bill that might help make that connection for Utahns fighting their way back into the economy, as well as businesses fighting their way through it—a tax credit for employers who hire needy applicants such as the chronically homeless and homeless veterans.
“When we try to give help to the homeless that involves payouts or affects the budget, the reflexive response from my conservative colleagues is to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that,’” King says. “Here, what we’re talking about is something that may have some impact on our budget, but it comes to the assistance of not only the homeless, but small- and medium-size businesses … this is a win-win situation.”
At Palmer Court, a former hotel renovated and converted into supportive housing in 2009 that currently houses more than 200 low-income residents, case workers and job coaches have been approaching the same issue King’s legislation would address, but primarily from the side of prepping low-income Utahns to get over their application jitters and get back on the job hunt.
In a Sept. 7 meeting of the State Homeless Coordinating Committee, Michelle Flynn, the program's director for The Road Home, gave an update on the pilot’s success and brought good news to the meeting of service providers—since the program’s launch, 61 residents obtained employment for some time, whether they lasted only a short while, quit or just had temporary work. As of Aug. 30, the pilot could count 39 residents currently employed.
But the bad news, Flynn discovered, was that while there were significant increases in the number of residents who were expressing interest in getting back into the workforce, according to surveys conducted among the residents, there was also a major problem holding residents back from fully committing—fear that employment might cost them access to public-assistance benefits like Social Security and food stamps.
“It’s not that they don’t want to work,” Flynn told the committee. “They worry that if they work, they will lose their benefits.” While that concern, Flynn says, is one that, to varying degrees, is untrue, it’s also one that makes it hard for residents to commit.
“Many people have told them things that don’t come to pass,” committee member Lloyd Pendleton said. “So, they've got a pretty good history of mistrust.”
While the program’s survey found that was the primary concern of residents, Flynn’s team expects to work harder to get residents past that fear, with more focused coaching, business outreach and a plan to develop an onsite business at Palmer Court by developing a commercial kitchen at the facility since there was a kitchen leftover from when the building was a hotel.
While the jobs program is making progress, it’s also operating on a $50,000 grant from the Butler Foundation that will expire in 2012. Further relief could come in the 2012 legislative session, however, if King passes his tax-credit bill. While King is patterning his prospective bill after legislation in Florida that offers a $1,000 tax credit to businesses that hire homeless individuals, he’s still toying with the right amount the credit should offer.
“You want to have an amount that’s not so high that you say, well, this is a budget-buster,” King says. “But you want it high enough that it’s meaningful in terms of providing a real incentive to a small business, for example.”
“We’re always looking for that sort of win-win opportunity for employers and our customers,” says Joey McNamee, the Department of Workforce Service’s supervisor for the jobs pilot program. “This is an added incentive for the employer, so it’s hard for me to imagine how that could hurt.”
McNamee works closely with her department’s job coaches at Palmer Court, and while a tax credit could go a long ways, she cautions that it may be impossible for some participants to transition completely from supportive housing to total self-reliance.
“I don’t want to make it sound like that happens overnight,” McNamee says. “I don’t expect to see a huge bump in turnover because everybody’s moving out in six months.”
Whether a tax credit can turn the down and out into the upwardly mobile—whether they come straight from the street or from supportive housing units like Palmer Court—remains to be seen. But that’s not to say that giving employers the means to help the needy doesn’t come without benefits.
“We look at employment as a part of a recovery process,” McNamee says. “How far that goes is always open-ended.” If a Palmer Court resident works janitorial service once a week or lands a full-time job, the emphasis, McNamee says, is realizing that the work experience gives meaning and purpose to people—and for her clients that can be an incredibly rewarding investment.
“Work is a common experience for many Americans, and so fitting into that norm can be an empowering experience,” McNamee says. “We want to cause this positive-feedback loop where people work, feel better about it and use it as an opportunity to address some other issues going on in their lives.”
King hopes his bill will include a credit directed at not just the homeless, but also homeless veterans. He hopes to fine-tune it enough by the Legislature's session that the credit could be incentive enough to bring the homeless into full-time employment and the kind of stability that could replace reliance on the public dime.
“Part of [my] motivation is that [this proposal] lays bare some of the real feelings of some of my conservative colleagues: Are they serious about providing tax relief to small and mid-size businesses in the state of Utah?” King says. “I want to know how serious they are about helping [homeless Utahns] that, in my perspective, are clearly in the greatest need of help.”