Housing stability is inextricably linked with other systems of care – health care, criminal justice, child welfare and education, to name a few. We were intrigued to see a proposal in 2017 from a collaborative working at the intersection of affordable housing and workforce development. Worksystems, Inc. was leading a collaborative effort to link employment and housing services for formerly homeless families in Portland, giving low-income residents community-based career coaching and supports to achieve family-supporting employment.
We saw the project as an opportunity for systems to coordinate in intentional, equity-informed ways that could produce better outcomes for both employment and housing stability. Now, over a year into the work, we are following up with Stacey Triplett, community programs manager at Worksystems, to hear more about the collaborative’s progress.
Theresa: How is Worksystems’ project aligning with the homeless services system?
Stacey: The Worksystems’ Aligned Partners Network (APN) is a flexible set of community-based employment service providers who are experienced in a customer-centered approach. This network approach creates success in making relevant services available in our community for folks experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.
Today, APN career coaches are a vital part of homeless services, working one on one with customers getting jobs, getting scholarships for occupational training and getting better jobs, all of which serves to stabilize their housing. High-demand, family-wage careers are open to those with a need for housing support if, and only if, they are able to set career goals and layer supports that are needed. Supports are timed to make progress possible; customers both gain skills and access employment opportunities.
The model for systems alignment is a “housing hub” approach where dedicated rent assistance coordinators bring housing market knowledge to customers in need of rapid rehousing or eviction prevention services alongside the work of the employment service providers of the APN. The same customers are shared across systems. The new normal is for career coaches to engage with their customers before, during and after they receive rent assistance in a manner that demonstrates that both housing AND employment stability are goals around which they engage their customers. This was a result of career coaches coordinating closely with and experiencing great support from the housing hub and its specialty knowledge to address short-term rent assistance needs.
Theresa: Can you share an example of a household that has benefitted from your work?
Stacey: Sure. Khalid had a master’s degree in electrical engineering and eight years of experience before he arrived in Portland as a refugee. To be recognized as a professional engineer in this country, his career coach helped with his resume and requesting the recommendations he needed in order to get approval to take the engineer licensing exam. He also had to take an English exam to qualify for the test.
At first, Khalid stayed with friends, and it was very crowded and noisy. He had difficulty studying for the English exam, but with only $300 a month in refugee assistance, landlords would not approve him for a unit. His career coach referred Khalid for rent assistance, and he was able to secure a unit quickly. His new home provides a safe and quiet space to study in order to pass the English exams and the professional engineering exam that he will be required to take in order to regain his certifications.
Once he had his own place, Khalid said, “I was able to focus on getting a job.” He found work as an electrical engineer at a construction firm and is working full time. Khalid has been approved to take the professional engineering exam in October and continues to study for it. His career coach will use support service funds to pay the costs and fees associated with taking the exam. At the same time, Khalid is already giving back to the community by helping others learn English and translating for them.
Theresa: Impressive work by Khalid and the team! How long have you been doing this collaborative work?
Stacey: This has been a journey of over five years. Meyer Memorial Trust supported work that brought all the relevant organizations together in these efforts. Human Solutions, as the housing hub, learned to share customers with IRCO, SE Works, Oregon Tradeswomen, Constructing Hope, Central City Concern and Human Solution’s own employment department. In more recent years, the network has grown to include Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center, Latino Network, the Urban League of Portland and Black Parent Initiative. Our project also prioritized production of data on how efforts that career coaches and rent assistance coordinators make on behalf of their shared customers increase their success by orders of magnitude compared to prior disconnected approaches. Specifically, in 2017 we measured greater income increases (almost double the rate of increase) for customers in the shared approach compared to those who were not. And they were also 53% more likely to leave the program employed.
Theresa: What special role do the collaborative partners play in the project?
Stacey: They are the absolute champions of this effort. All the day-to-day changes to accommodate this new model have been made in a very consensus-oriented manner with good participation and communication amongst and between career coaches and rent assistance coordinators.
Theresa: What kind of challenges have you faced, and how have you overcome them?
Stacey: We’ve found that systems alignment challenges can best be overcome with frequent and clear communications. With our system alignment work with the housing system, understanding each other’s performance metrics can be difficult, but the deeper we dig the more that we understand the intricacies of each other’s work with participants and how our decisions impact participant lives and performance outcomes for both systems.
Theresa: What do you hope happens going forward?
Stacey: I hope how career coaches and rent assistance coordinators work together will be sustained by the benefits that both colleagues create for customers’ outcomes. It took time for each area to learn one another’s strengths, procedures and how to best stabilize customers experiencing housing instability while pursuing employment goals. Now there’s a natural alliance where housing and employment are “everyone’s business.”
There are many ways the network has embraced the customer-centered teaming that happens when career coaches appreciate the intricacies of operating the housing hub and rent assistance coordinators take cues from training timeframes and employment activities to make sure customers can achieve their goals.
Theresa: Are you able to share the results of your work to a broader audience?
Stacey: There has been interest in this work by many national bodies. Currently, Portland is featured in the 2018 Systems Work Better Together: Strengthening Public Workforce & Homeless Service Systems Collaboration report by the Heartland Alliance. Also, this work has been featured to inspire states outside Oregon to consider utilizing public resources such as are utilized here to fund “SNAP to Skills” efforts that the USDA supports nationwide. An Oregon Housing and Community Services webinar was held with participation from housing professionals, workforce development staff and local funders around the country.
Theresa: Congratulations! Anything else you would like us to know?
Stacey: This goal of systems aligning for customer benefit is that everyone comes to see the connections as the most logical, natural and smooth way of working and doubts that it was ever any other way.
Theresa: That’s a great ending thought. Thank you so much, Stacey, for sharing the progress on this collaborative work to align systems.