Finding gainful employment remains a large hurdle for homeless DC residents. A new Georgetown cafe aims to help overcome it.

A customer stands at a coffee counter.

The coffee counter at Spero Ministries during a July 13 fundraising event. Photo courtesy of Spero Ministries.

Inspired by the Latin word for “hope,” Spero Ministriesa new employment initiative in Georgetown, aims to provide temporary employment and training for D.C. residents that may struggle with job stability or require a supportive work environment. This includes people with a history of homelessness, trafficking, refugees, and people returning from prison. Beginning Sept. 8, Spero will run a coffee shop during the week inside Georgetown’s Veritas City Church on K Street NW between Wisconsin Avenue and Key Bridge. 

Veritas is a fairly new church, having just celebrated its first anniversary in early July, and its brand-new waterfront property was a big inspiration for the program. “It already looked like a coffee shop,” said Veritas lead pastor Greg Gibson. “Once we moved in, it was a matter of figuring out how best to utilize the space all week instead of just on Sundays, and how to love our neighbors.” 

Gibson partnered with Lissa Ramsepaul, a clinical social worker, to come up with the vision for Spero Ministries. “My faith and her belief in helping those who are down really collided to create this,” he recalled. 

[Disclosure: Lissa Ramsepaul is a Street Sense Media staff member] 

The shop will hire around five workers to go through an employment program lasting 12 to 18 months, and will pay each worker $15 an hour for part time positions. Ramsepaul said part-time schedules will allow participants time to utilize other resources they need, such as shelter or medical care.  

group photo of fundraiser participants at Spero Ministries
Joseph Linch (far right) was one of the several future program participants to work a June 30 fundraiser for Spero Ministries. Founder and Executive Director Lissa Ramsepaul (center) poses with them. Photo courtesy of Spero Ministries.

“There are places you can go to get job training or help applying for jobs or doing a resume, but what I’ve found over the years is that there are a lot of people who know how to do all that and they just need a job…I’ve known a number of people who panhandle because there’s not a better option.” 

Ramsepaul said 12-18 months is a “soft deadline” and Spero will work more on a case-by-case basis because they want to “make sure that what we’re doing contributes to stability, not creates more barriers.”  

Ramsepaul hopes that this training will allow program participants to find work with other restaurants once their time with Spero is up. 

“We’re not trying to be in competition with other restaurants,” she said. “We’re actually trying to help them by giving them more qualified workers.” 

While the common stereotype is that homeless people are all unemployed and uninterested in working, the truth is quite the opposite. Research shows that up to 25 percent of the country’s homeless population is currently working, while 40 to 60 percent jump between part- and full-time jobs. 

For those who are unemployed, the issue often lies within the host of requirements that make it difficult for them to stand out among other applicants — or even apply to jobs in the first place. Ramsepaul, who has been involved in social work for 23 years, has witnessed firsthand how difficult the job searching process can be for homeless people. 

“Things that are crucial to the job search like transportation, or resumes, or even professional dress and appearance aren’t accessible to everyone,” Ramsepaul said. “When you can’t have any of those things, you’re automatically at more of a disadvantage in trying to get hired.” 

[Read more: This scholarship covers incidental costs, such as transportation or lunch, for people enrolled in the District’s free “peer support” behavioral health certification course] 

That’s only the beginning. Many applications require addresses and phone numbers on applications, two major barriers that keep homeless people from even applying to jobs. Without a phone, it’s difficult to create an email address, another common application requirement. Even when homeless applicants are able to apply for jobs, harmful perceptions of homeless people can lead to hiring discrimination.  

According to the Chronic Homelessness Employment Technical Assistance Center, potential employees are “frequently challenged by pervasive negative stereotypes when approaching employers about hiring qualified homeless job seekers.” Doubts about homeless applicants’ work ethic, professionalism, and dependability can greatly affect their ability to get hired. In 2014, the National Coalition for the Homeless reported that 70.4% of homeless D.C. residents felt they’d been discriminated against due to their housing status. 

[Read more: This legislation would extend specific anti-discrimination protections to people experiencing homelessness in DC] 

On top of the logistical barriers, discrimination in the job sector can take a mental and emotional toll on applicants experiencing homelessness. 

“When you’re homeless, it’s hard to feel comfortable in an interview or a situation like that,” said Joseph Lincha Spero Ministries volunteer and future program participant. “You can’t shower as often as you want or dress how you want. People look at you funny. Eventually, you brainwash yourself to think no one will hire you.”

Linch was hired as a volunteer to help set up and clean up for two Spero fundraising events in July. For both events, some of the volunteers were potential participants testing to see if they fit into the program. 

Spero, which claims to be the only program of its kind in the D.C. area, wants to help homeless people overcome these boundaries by providing them with intensive training and work experience. Spero will not require prior job training or experience, a background check, fingerprinting, drug testing, or for a participant to be housed.  

“The only prerequisite to be working should be wanting to work,” said Ramsepaul. “We are trying to make that a reality.” 

Though Spero’s mission may be unique to the D.C. area, this “supportive employment” model has been successful elsewhere. One example is the Lighthouse Bistro in Annapolis, MD, which is run as part of the Lighthouse Homelessness Prevention Support Center there. After coming up with the idea for Spero, Ramsepaul visited the center, which teaches culinary and customer service skills to those staying within the center’s housing, as well as referrals from other nearby assistance programs. 

Other Employment Programs Available to People Experiencing Homelessness in DC

This list is inclusive but not exhaustive. Researched and compiled by Leah Stein. (Click to enlarge)

While Spero is still in its developing stage, the Lighthouse Bistro is an example of what it could grow to become. Founded in 2017, the bistro trains its employees in a 12-week intensive before hiring them to restaurant positions. Once hired, workers receive a living wage and have the potential to be promoted to higher positions. 

“People have become managers or executive sous chefs in the past,” said Beth Rocca, Lighthouse Bistro’s general manager. “We’re happy to be helping people support themselves.”  

Since the bistro’s creation, it has added a catering contract that has allowed them to create more restaurant positions. It has also become the sole caterer for Woodwind, a recreational event boating service in Annapolis.  

“We grow every single day,” said Rocca. “We’re always thinking of something to do, and we’re always very aggressive about being able to do more.” 

Similarly, in D.C. Ramsepaul hopes to add Spero Housing to the employment program, which will “offer housing in some way to folks from the same population facing housing instability due to their trauma history, with a focus on youth.” The housing aspect of the program will not be limited to participants in the employment program.   

Because the program is still in infancy, it will be a while until this dream becomes reality. “[The housing aspect] is all still emerging, but is definitely part of our plan,” Ramsepaul said.  

Joseph Linch, as a future participant, is keeping optimistic about the program’s potential. “It’s gonna be like a chain reaction,” he said. “I’m going to get a job, and then tell my friends so that they can get jobs, and so on. I think a program like this could get a lot of people off the streets. I’m excited.” 

Ramsepaul hopes that other organizations will follow Spero’s lead to limit barriers to employment.  

“People need somewhere that they can get a second chance, or a third chance, or a fourth chance, whatever chance they’re on, to start their life over and get it on track,” Ramsepaul said. “Everybody needs a purpose, everybody needs somewhere to belong to, and a lot of times we undervalue the impact that that alone can have.” 

Leah Stein contributed reporting.

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