Meaning and Dignity: Project HOME’s Employment Program Fosters Recovery and Restoration
Yvonne Bailey has to rise pretty early in the morning on a work day. She gets her daughter ready for school, then heads to Center City, where she is responsible for opening the HOME Page Café at the Main Branch of the Free Library on the Parkway. It takes about 45 minutes to do the inventory, set up and clean, brew the coffee and tea, get the espresso machine going, and make the Café ready by 8:30 am for the day’s first customers.
Work and employment are not only critical to a person’s economic sustenance, they are a building block of human meaning and dignity. Since our earliest days, Project HOME has understood that employment is critical to helping people break the cycle of homelessness and poverty. It is part of our name: “O” is for Opportunities for Employment. In fact, access to sustainable employment is the single most important factor in a person’s ability to stay housed.
Over the years, we have developed education and employment programs to meet the particular needs of our residents and community members. Yvonne, who spent 17 years on the streets before landing at Project HOME’s Rowan Homes, has worked at the Café since its opening in 2008. She waxes enthusiastic about her job: “It’s a blessing. It keeps me focused and helps me keep my priorities in order. I have a sense of responsibility, knowing what I have to do.”
Project HOME’s Employment Services program has evolved over the years, as we have learned from experience and undertaken best practices. We recognize that the process of re-entering the work world cannot be separated from the overall journey back from homelessness. For many residents, this entails rebuilding the foundation of their lives in order to reclaim their independence and dignity.
Our model is called “supported employment,” which provides a set of appropriate supports tailored to persons who have experienced chronic homelessness and such special needs as addiction and mental health struggles, to help them make the transition to competitive employment and permanent independence and self-sufficiency. We work closely with each of our residents and our alumni to set goals and create a strong employment plan, based on the person’s strengths, interest, and experience.
The supported employment model is rooted in a commitment to recovery. While the economic part of employment is clearly one of the goals, the program addresses the whole person and integrates the process of employment within that person’s journey of recovery (from either addiction or mental illness). This creates more complexities in the employment process, but also more possibilities.
“There is a restorative dimension to our employment program,” says Ed Speedling, who oversees the Exelon Veterans Training and Employment Program. “Almost universally we see the power of being employed – as a person has a role to play and a paycheck comes in, other things begin to happen: there is an increase in social integration. People begin to reengage with their families. They build relationships. They get involved in things. They face up to things in their past that need to be amended.” Many of the participants in the Vets Program, for instance, as they are learning responsibility in the workplace, also take responsibility in other aspects of their lives – facing up to long-standing obligations like child support or old debts.
Our Employment Services Program staff work with all residents and program participants on many fundamental aspects of work readiness, including basic business literacy, workplace etiquette, computer skills, and professional attire. At the same time, we work with private-sector employers to seek positions in clerical work, customer service, custodial maintenance, hospitality, and a variety of other fields.
Some of the specific components of our Employment Services Program include:
Our Daily Threads Thrift Store, located at 1515 Fairmount Avenue, allows many of our residents to gain retail and customer relations skills. It is often a first step back into work and a launching pad for the transition to competitive employment.
The H.O.M.E. Page Café is a social enterprise located at the Parkway Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia, which is designed both to make a profit and to provide a stable work environment for current and former residents. The Café is supported by many local vendors, including Starbucks, Metropolitan Bakery, the Green Line Café, Soup’s On of Salvation Army, Del Frisco’s Steakhouse, and Pequea Valley Yogurts.
The Bathroom Attendant Program of the Free Library of Philadelphia, also located at the Library Parkway Branch, employs formerly homeless men and woman as attendants in the public bathrooms – for light cleaning, but more importantly for peer counseling. When those without a place to call home spend time in the Library bathrooms, attendants are there to speak with them, refer them to services, and support their efforts to move off the streets into housing.
The Exelon Veterans Training and Employment Program, a partnership between Project HOME Exelon Foundation, and PECO, aims to empower formerly homeless veterans to reach their fullest potential through employment and educational opportunities that are based on the principles of recovery. The program has provided a job training opportunity to 20 veterans over the last two years.
As with just about every aspect of our work, the success of our Employment Program is possible because of a broad community of support. We are grateful to many local businesses that have partnered with us, and we hope to develop more partnerships. Special thanks to Jim O’Brien for the important networking and mentoring he has done to expand our employment opportunities for residents and alumni.
Project HOME seeks partner employers, like recent partner Independence Blue Cross, to increase the opportunities available to residents and alumni, especially those that have demonstrated years of solid work habits. As an employer, Project HOME understands what professional development skills people need to be successful in any workplace, and also what our residents and former residents have to offer in terms of their talents, abilities, and determination. You can help up create more opportunities for meaning and dignity.