Against All Odds: Jobs for the Homeless

.Most homeless people are unemployed. Many have been out of work for months or even years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the likelihood of finding a job when a person has been out of work for six months or more is one in ten, and the longer the period of joblessness extends, the worse the odds become. At some point, most people give up.
Work – finding and keeping a job – is a critical component in breaking the cycle of homelessness. Last year, the Union Gospel Mission stepped up its emphasis on getting residents back to work by creating a Vocational Advancement department. Many of the men and women staying in shelters face daunting barriers – poor work histories, a lack of references, criminal records, insufficient skills and/or education, unhealthy methods of coping with conflict and stress. At 57, George Hatcher’s hurdles were higher than most. With seven felonies, he had spent 90 percent of his adult life incarcerated. Add high blood pressure, diabetes, a bad conduct discharge from the military and no driver’s license, and you can see that George’s employment prospects looked grim.
Fortunately, the Mission’s Social Services Manager, Dean Whisler, stepped into the huge gap between George’s desire for a job and his prospects of actually getting one. What George needed was an advocate – someone steering him toward available resources, coordinating between various programs and putting in the occasional good word – and Whisler became that. While at the Mission, George has lost weight, gotten both his diabetes and high blood pressure under control, had his eyes checked and received new glasses. He has regained his driver’s license, completed a work evaluation through Goodwill Industries, been accepted by the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation and established a bank account.– all of which goes toward the Mission’s fundamental purpose: helping George return to society as a God-dependent, contributing member. “Everybody cares here. They’ve all bent over backwards to try to help,” George said.
The high value placed on purposeful work permeates the ministry. Short-term guests are assigned daily tasks – housekeeping, kitchen duty, laundry, warehousing and assisting with donations. Those\ staying long term work 30 hours per week. The primary purpose of the enterprises – UGM Motors, UGM Thrift Stores and the Food Services Training School– is to provide job training and work experience to men and women in transition.
Finally, the Recovery programs address work issues from a variety of angles. Through Vocational Advancement, each resident’s educational background and career interests are assessed and documented. Staff then work with residents to create a long-term plan with incremental goals. Literacy and GED training are provided, along with computer skills and instruction in professional manner and attire, resume creation and interview techniques.
In the final stages of the recovery programs, participants are matched with a local company for a business practicum experience –.20 hours of volunteer work per week for 12 weeks. Every effort is made to match the candidate’s skills and interests to the company’s needs, and participants are encouraged to see the practicum as an opportunity to engage their talents, skills and passions in meaningful work. At the same time, through this partnership, local businesses have the opportunity to engage with the community – giving back in a significant, practical way. It’s a win-win.
John Willoughby was surprised when Vocational Director Tiffany Riddle suggested an office job for his practicum experience. “I’ve never been an office guy. I’ve always had jobs that were survival jobs – truck driving, package delivery, pizza delivery, convenience stores.” However, he was pleasantly surprised by how well he fit at Altmeyer Financial Strategies. Dave Altmeyer, president of the company, has been a great mentor and helped John to see that he has what it takes to do something new.
“I organize and plan well. I’m a good people person. That’s what you need to work in an office, but I’ve always stifled that and said I wasn’t good enough for this.”
Make no mistake, going from homeless to housed and employed is a serious challenge. Doing it alone may well be impossible. George put it like this: “It’s been hard, and it’s frustrating sometimes, but guys like Dean have gone out of their way to say, ‘Well, just keep going. You’re getting there. Look at what you’ve done so far.’”The business practicum is just one of several different ways companies can partner with the Union Gospel Mission. If you own a small business or hold a decision-making position in your company and think you might be interested in an employment partnership, please contact Tiffany Riddle at