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Jobs for the Jobless

Lawmaker, agencies lend a hand

By Eric S. Peterson
 Rep. Brian King, D-Salt Lake City
Posted // September 27,2011 -

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.”

Twitter: @EricSPeterson

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Posted // September 27,2011 at 10:32 The reality is that a single person on SSI makes $674 a month and maybe $10 in food stamps. This after waiting 2 years to get on SSI, which means they have been found too disabled to hold a job. Gambling on work and putting what little you have at risk is hard for people who have failed repeatedly to hold a job in the past due to disabling conditions. And before you say the substance abuse is not a disabling condition, please remember that substance abuse hasn't been considered a disability for SSI since 1996. There's more going on here than people being lazy and living the good life. Homelessness is a hard trap to escape and holding a stable job seems like pie in the sky for many. That's why these kind of efforts matter.


Posted // September 27,2011 at 11:46 - Your comments are valid for a percentage of the people using welfare. The other percentage, too high a number, are lazy scammers that get used to not working.

Many of these people do not work for so long while taking advantage of the system that when they are faced with the prospect, it seems too difficult for them - they are too far gone, surfing society's fringes while depending upon society to support them indefinitely.

Many of the so-called disabling conditions you refer to that prevent so many of these people from working are conditions that many of us in the workforce deal with daily, while at work. These people simply have a different mindset, one embedded in self reliance and personal responsibility.


Posted // September 27,2011 at 09:14 Is it just me, or does anybody else find it ironic that many of these people do not want to work because they may lose their public-funded welfare? Perhaps you guys could begin by explaining to them that the point of working, that is, trading your time for pay, is to be independent, to take care of yourself and your family, and, if you're already mired in the system, to become independent from said system and leave some money in there for those that really need it. There are a lot of people that need help and not just by choice.

Know what I hear these people saying when I read certain lines in this article? "Thanks for the job offer, but no thanks. Working sucks. I am perfectly comfortable sitting here eating pop tarts and watching cartoons. Actually, it's time for my nap. Would you mind checking the mailbox? I think I just heard the letter carrier deliver my monthly check.

Listen. Tell these people that, at 10:00 a.m. sharp tomorrow, my team and I be over there to gather up all that are willing to participate in our Bum Recovery Program (sorry but we don't utilize euphemisms). We'll bring in all the vans necessary to deliver every one of these good people to our new and efficient Goshute Work Farm Complex, located in Utah's beautiful west desert, where they will all learn to become active participants in their own lives.