During the first week of October, thousands of government management professionals from across the country are gathering in Portland for the International City/Council Management Association's annual conference. The goal: share ideas and solutions for the most pressing issues facing local governments. If the situation in Portland is any guide, at the top of their minds should be addressing the devastating, interconnected crises of unemployment, homelessness, and criminal recidivism. For decades, Portland has pursued a Housing First strategy to address homelessness, and yet the crisis is worse than ever. While supportive housing is a crucial piece of the puzzle, it can't be the only tool in the toolkit — especially considering that only 27% of people experiencing homelessness are considered "chronically homeless" and thus eligible for housing vouchers, per federal eligibility requirements. There is another way to reduce homelessness, one that is cost-effective, time-tested, and implemented in communities as diverse as New York City to Mountain West suburbs to rural Southern localities. These programs operate under the umbrella "Work Works."Work Works focuses on employing people experiencing homelessness in social enterprises, which defray the model's program costs while providing a needed service to the community, such as street cleaning or park maintenance. (Despite mental illness being perhaps the most public association with homelessness, only about 25% of the homeless population suffers from serious mental illness that impairs the ability to become a productive member of society.) The reason that Work Works is so effective is the unique combination of three interventions. First, there's that immediate access to paid work, which allows people to start generating income and regain self-esteem. The program pairs this with transitional housing to keep people in the community, but off the streets — where they are more than 10 times as likely to have police contact. And lastly, these residences offer comprehensive support services that range from case management, to sobriety support, to career training, to adult basic education and everything in between. Together, these three interventions are more than the sum of their parts. The stability provided by access to income, housing, and support all in one is transformative. The impact of Work Works in the communities it serves is indisputable. The original program in New York — The Doe Fund's Ready, Willing & Able — reduces recidivism rates among graduates by 62% compared to demographically identical individuals. In Colorado, more than 70% of Ready to Work participants graduate into full-time employment and housing. Similarly, a Work Works affiliate in Georgia features a 70% graduation rate, with 80% retaining their jobs and housing. What Work Works amounts to is America's most-needed investment, even more so than those in physical infrastructure: investment in human capital.
Isabel McDevitt is executive vice president of The Doe Fund in New York City. She participated in the International City/Council Management Association's annual conference Oct. 1 to 5 in Portland.
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