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Helping the Homeless Find Jobs

Seventeen years ago, John Shelter found himself and his two young children homeless for a six-month stretch. The single father lived in a van in a campground and then moved onto "couch surfing," or staying on sofas at friends’ houses. Today, the aptly named Shelter, 50, is Executive Director of the Arcata Endeavor, a Northern California nonprofit that provides food, skills training, mentoring, and employment to the homeless and others who live in poverty.

This Arcata, Calif., resource could become a national model for employment programs geared toward homeless people who have trouble keeping long-term employment. It is certainly a standout in its area.

Arcata Endeavor’s philosophy, which is gaining ground around the country, is that the down-and-out need opportunities and guidance, not just crisis-mode food and shelter. "It’s important that the homeless work and view these places as a hand up, not as a handout," maintains Shelter. "Rather than just giving them what they need to get through the day—a hot meal and a shower, for instance, which are also important—you must provide services to help them climb out of the hole of homelessness and poverty. We take them by the hand and redirect their lives." They may have no birth certificate or other identification necessary to land a job, for instance, or not know how to apply for Social Security. Arcata Endeavor shows them how.

Shelter’s place offers an array of services, including a hot meal program, a food pantry, box lunches for low-income residents, showers and laundry, substance-abuse and mental-health counseling, one-on-one career and life-skills guidance, job coaching, case management, and actual employment so that prospective candidates will have a current work history and references. The nonprofit also provides a telephone, voice mail, mailing address, and Internet access—all necessary tools for today’s job hunter.

Many Arcata Endeavor volunteers are themselves homeless. Their jobs may be to fill or distribute the box lunches, serve hot meals, or help with job mentoring. The remaining volunteers are people from the community, many of whom are age 50+ and act primarily as mentors.

Among the goals of the Back to Basics (BtB) work-readiness program, as it is called, are to instill personal responsibility, a sense of accomplishment, and a feeling of belonging to a larger community—the "real world."

At first, BtB participants perform tasks at the facility that are closely supervised by staff. Once they’ve met the facility’s work and behavioral standards, they can become part of a paid crew in the community. It might be as a day laborer, or assisting or cleaning up at a citywide recycling event, for instance. After proving their reliability in the community, volunteers teach participants to write an effective résumé and other tasks such as how to look presentable and conduct themselves both during the interview and once hired.

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