Flo White thought she had it all figured out: go to college part time while working two jobs to pay the rent on her new apartment.
And for a while, it went well. For the first time ever, White felt as though her life was going according to plan. She found an apartment and a roommate and signed a lease. But her part-time jobs were only paying her $12 and $13 an hour. And working them while taking classes proved overwhelming.
By the age of 19, White lost her apartment and entered D.C.’s youth homelessness system. One of the two jobs went next, then college. With only one low-wage job left for support, White was caught in a wave of debts, back rent, and exhaustion that she just couldn’t swim out of, even though she tried to do so every day.
At one point, in hopes of finding a more sustainable job, White turned to D.C.’s workforce development and employment system. She knew she wanted to be a social worker, and was hoping she could find work at a drop-in center. D.C.’s Department of Employment Services (DOES) and Department of Human Services (DHS) provide a host of workforce development and readiness programs aimed at preparing D.C. residents for the job market and training them for new careers. But White couldn’t find anything that would prepare her for her preferred field, so she instead took on odd jobs and worked in restaurants, often making minimum wage. Her dream of being a social worker was still as far away as it had ever been. It was only when she connected with D.C. nonprofit Sasha Bruce Youthwork that she made a living wage (in D.C. at least $20.65 an hour for someone without children) with benefits for the first time.
She’s not alone: While D.C.’s workforce development options are available to all residents — including 16- to 24-year-olds — many young people experiencing homelessness say the available programs don’t take their specific needs for logistical and emotional support into account. In response, youth advocates are pushing for a specific workforce development program that would target youth experiencing homelessness.
Across the country, youth experiencing homelessness have a markedly high unemployment rate, with an estimated 75% unemployed, compared to 16% of housed youth. Many of the same challenges that can prevent youth experiencing homelessness from finding a job — not just the lack of housing and a permanent address, but also little or no access to transportation, the internet, professional clothing, and a support network — can also prevent youth from completing a workforce development program.
There are myriad reasons workforce development may not work for potential participants. That’s particularly true for youth experiencing homelessness, according to June Crenshaw, executive director of the Wanda Alston Foundation, an organization serving homeless LGBTQ+ youth. Programs do not necessarily lead to jobs that will pay a livable wage, and young people experiencing homelessness generally can’t afford to sit in training sessions they aren’t being paid for. Even if youth make the tough decision to forgo weeks of pay in hopes of job development, they may not be welcomed — over 40% of youth experiencing homelessness in D.C. are queer, and they often report experiencing discrimination and harassment in the workplace, according to Crenshaw.
Queer young people experiencing homelessness often feel they’re not hired because of their gender and sexual identity, Crenshaw said. If they are hired, they can find themselves in an environment where colleagues make derogatory or aggressive comments with no repercussions. Discriminatory treatment in the workplace, in turn, can trigger rejection-related trauma, or just plain anger, according to Crenshaw. And that has consequences.
“If any of our kids have one bad day, it could mean the end of a job for them,” said Jorge Membreño, deputy executive director at SMYAL, a local organization serving queer youth at risk of homelessness.
A few new DHS and non-governmental attempts to tailor job services to youth experiencing homelessness have sprung up in the last few years. But nearly all of the advocates and youth interviewed for this article responded to a question about current offerings the same way: The available options don’t provide real opportunities.
Large-scale initiatives like DOES’s Marion Barry Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) are tailored primarily to the needs of current students. SYEP subsidizes an internship or workforce training for D.C. residents aged 14 to 24 for six weeks in June, July and August, but the positions are not intended to lead immediately to a job. Career Connections, a DOES program aimed at out-of-school-youth, only serves ages 20 to 24 and pays a training wage below minimum wage at $9 an hour.
DOES’s Pathways for Young Adults Program and its Out-of-School Program both offer job training, as do initiatives funded through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Though these options offer training in about a dozen career areas, they do not guarantee participants a job after completion, and only Pathways is paid.
DOES has ventured into more targeted offerings, including a transgender cohort in the Project Empowerment program, a work-readiness initiative that provides subsidized employment placements, and a transitional housing component for homeless participants. Neither are specific to youth. DOES did not provide comment on the efficacy of its programs before deadline.
D.C. Action, a youth advocacy group, recently conducted an internal survey of 16- to 24-year-olds experiencing homelessness about their experiences in these programs. Most youth surveyed participated in either SYEP or SNAP, according to Rachel White, senior youth policy analyst at D.C. Action. Youth reported that current workforce development options were not accessible to people without a sustainable place to live because of a lack of transportation, child care, professional clothes and laundry facilities.
While at work or in training, youth are likely to worry about their housing and food instability, Crenshaw said. They may not be able to show up from 9 a.m.to 5 p.m., or they may have to leave early to find a place to sleep. These needs are not taken into account in most D.C. workforce programs, according to Crenshaw.
Acree Strong, Flo White, and Troy Harris all serve on Sasha Bruce’s Youth Advisory Council, which provides feedback from youth with lived experiences of homelessness.
In Strong’s experience, some youth manage to overcome these barriers and get hired — just not at jobs they want or can keep. Though workforce development programs offer training in a variety of fields, Strong feels the options are too limited and don’t transfer well to entrepreneurship, something of interest to many youth at Sasha Bruce.
Strong, White and Harris all said potential participants need more wraparound support from the programs generally — continuing mentorship, training on how to budget and pay taxes, and assistance in applying for jobs once the program ends.
“Connectivity is super important, and also putting the pieces together for you,” White said.
With all of these criticisms swirling around, youth experiencing homelessness are choosing not to participate in government-based workforce programs, Crenshaw said.
‘It should just be better’
Such is Harris’s overarching assessment of how youth workforce options can improve.
In practice, that ask could mean a few things: revising general workforce opportunities to provide mental health support and flexibility to youth experiencing homelessness; hiring youth who go through these programs to jobs in the D.C. government; encouraging local businesses to hire youth experiencing homelessness; and creating a program designed for and limited to LGBTQ+ youth experiencing homelessness, given the unique challenges they face. All offerings, youth and advocates say, need to pay living wages and put youth on a career path beyond their first job.
“Sustainability is the key there — sustainability is kind of how you break free,” SMYAL’s Membreño said.
D.C. Action’s Rachel White is hoping that a grant program administered by DHS could provide a model. The initiative, officially called “Workforce Development Program for Transgender, Non-Binary, and Gender Non-Conforming Youth,” provides funding to community organizations that provide wraparound workforce development for 18- to 24-year-olds experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
Grant recipient Project LEAP, operated by SHUGG’s Place at Damien Ministries, provides six months of financial support while youth are looking for employment or participating in workforce development. Project LEAP offers training, with courses in hospitality, culinary arts, community health, arts, and entertainment; it also helps participants find jobs and mentors.
The program is just beginning its second year, according to Gabrielle “Gibby” Thomas, director of SHUGG’s Place. About 30 youth have enrolled in Project LEAP, but most left prior to completion after finding employment, according to Thomas.
Project LEAP is not immune to the problems other workforce development initiatives face. While Membreño advocated for the grant’s creation, Crenshaw said the program didn’t help the youth she knows find sustainable employment that would help them long-term.
Thomas acknowledged that Project LEAP does not guarantee employment. “But we can put you in the position where you are better prepared,” she said. Project LEAP is focused on helping young people get their first job — a means of survival — rather than setting them up for a career.
Still, Rachel White would like to see this model used in programs for all youth experiencing homelessness. She said DHS is interested in the idea but would need $1 million in funding through DOES, an ask White made during the current round of budget oversight hearings.
Broadly speaking, advocates would like to see current offerings include wraparound mental health and trauma supports. Youth should be paid for any training they attend, White argued, and receive stipends for transportation and work attire. At-large Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who chairs the committee that oversees DOES, said in an interview she supports creating cohorts in each workforce program for youth experiencing homelessness but did not have a specific proposal in mind.
At a March 28 budget oversight hearing, DOES Director Unique Morris-Hughes argued that opportunities do exist for youth experiencing homelessness. “I would say between DOES and DHS we do have a strong record in serving homeless youth,” she said. Morris-Hughes did express support for adding cohorts in existing programs geared to youth experiencing homelessness, but she didn’t indicate how much funding would be necessary to do so.
Short term, Strong and Crenshaw say DOES and other D.C. agencies can take a lead by hiring youth experiencing homelessness, especially those who have completed job training. This would also benefit future DOES participants, who would be able to see their own future in current D.C. employees, Strong said.
Without government support, advocates say private organizations have to step up to hire and mentor youth experiencing homelessness. While Membreño said he works with a lot of employers on partnerships, he singled out the efforts of Capitol Hill’s new queer space and bar, As You Are, as an especially promising model. The owners reached out to SMYAL and the Wanda Alston Foundation about hiring from the LGBTQ+ community, and they are hoping to provide employees with skills that will be useful in future jobs.
“Although this is a brand-new model, it’s being done with such focus and attention on vulnerable populations that otherwise can’t find job spaces that are safe for them and helps them to build skills,” Crenshaw said of As You Are.
When it comes to ensuring youth experiencing homelessness are able to find sustainable jobs, Strong proclaims the whole community has a role to play.
“If people want us to be stable, if people want us to change our lives and put our life together, somebody has to give us a chance,” he said. “You can’t expect people to do better and do bigger if you never give them a chance.”
This article was co-published with The DC Line.
Annemarie Cuccia covers DC government and public affairs through a partnership between Street Sense Media and The DC Line. This joint position was made possible by The Nash Foundation and individual contributors.