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Putting Employment First

[The following appeared in the July 2015 issue of the NAWDP Advantage, a newsletter for NAWDP members]

“Emily” showed up with her young son at our AimHire job placement program last December. Frantic and crying, she told Director Jermaine Hampton she was unemployed, behind in her rent, dangerously close to eviction, and worried that her son would be displaced in the middle of the school year if she were to lose her apartment. Laid off from her previous job, she had relocated to DC to find better opportunities. But finding a job was harder than she’d anticipated, and without family support in the area, she was paralyzed by fear and depression.

A typical employment program might offer Emily a one-size-fits all job training or readiness class. But AimHire isn’t typical. AimHire takes a radically different approach. It’s called “Employment First.”

The AimHire staff looks at the whole person and their particular situation and asks, “What do you need to attain stable employment and housing as quickly as possible?” In Emily’s case, that meant, first of all, addressing the crisis at hand. Jermaine picked up the phone and called her apartment management company and persuaded them to delay the court date and eviction proceedings. He then drew on AimHire’s Rental Flex Fund to pay her back-owed rent.

Resolving this crisis instantly relieved Emily’s distress and restored her confidence. Jermaine quickly helped her land a $20-an-hour job as a customer service representative at a university admissions office. He then helped her create a monthly budget, so that she wouldn’t fall into the same cycle again. He gave her gift cards for food and necessities and a care package of household supplies assembled by Friendship Place volunteers and donors to help her get by until her first paycheck arrived.

This story illustrates just a few of AimHire’s innovative Employment First practices. Here’s a more in-depth list: (1) Assume employability. (2) Be flexible. (3) Identify personal skills and strengths. (3) Assess barriers and create a plan to overcome them. (5) Provide individualized, wraparound services, responsive to the customer’s needs and goals. (6) Prioritize financial stabilization. (7) Build positive relationships with potential employers and landlords to create openings for people who would otherwise be turned away at the door. (6) Provide whatever job-readiness assistance the customer needs and wants. (7) Engage mission-driven staff and volunteers. (8) Don’t impose a time limit on services. (8) Help people get employed and housed simultaneously. (9) Prioritize job placement over training.

Those last two points are key to Employment First. It’s almost impossible to get a job when you’re homeless. And it’s cruel to be forced to sit through a training program for several weeks when you need a job right now to feed your family. Our philosophy is that people can always pursue education and training to increase their earnings capacity after they’ve achieved the peace of mind and financial stability that a job brings.

Of course, if one of our participants wants to pursue training before employment, we support them. But we’ll make sure to get them into a program that will lead to an actual job, preferably an OJT placement or paid internship.

Over the past four years, AimHire has used this Employment First approach to place 358 people into jobs, 343 of whom have been stably housed as well, and achieve an average three-month retention rate of more than 80 percent.

I’m happy to report that Emily is doing well and is grateful that her son’s schooling continued without disruption.

Founded in 1991, Friendship Place – khughes4713.wpengine.com – is a leading homeless services organization serving the Washington, DC, region. AimHire was launched in 2011 to fast-track people experiencing or at risk of homelessness into stable jobs and housing. In May, AimHire Director Jermaine Hampton received the 2015 NAWDP Leadership Award. He is preparing a webinar for NAWDP about Employment First; it will be accessible by all members. Jermaine can be reached at jhampton@friendshipplace.org.

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