BY: RAUL CLEMENT
The Big Picture
Like most social issues, the problem of homelessness doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Rather, it is deeply linked with the issue of unemployment. Without a steady paycheck, it is easy to fall behind on rent—especially in a state with skyrocketing housing costs like California. And once you lose your housing, it is difficult to maintain a job or find a new one.
The California Workforce Association, based in Sacramento, recognizes this relationship and has taken steps to address both together. With the help of private partners like Anthem Blue Cross, local workforce boards like the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency, and political figures like Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell of Los Angeles’s 2nd District, they’ve established a multipronged approach to tackling the homeless epidemic.
Businesses are incentivized to employ the homeless through the Homeless Hiring Tax Credit. And the homeless themselves are steered toward suitable jobs through programs like the Homeless Transitional Employment Program administered by the State’s local workforce boards. The program also provides participants with temporary housing, gas cards, clothing vouchers, counseling and other resources while they train at their new jobs and build a savings account that will ease their transition into a new, and better, chapter.
The Homeless Hiring Tax Credit
The Homeless Hiring Tax Credit went into effect for California this January, but it was the culmination of years of coalition-building by the California Workforce Association and its partners. One important figure behind the scenes is Caroline M. Torosis, a former deputy of Workforce Development who recently moved into Supervisor Holly J. Mitchell’s office to lead the push for the tax credit.
“Businesses kept saying ‘we want to be part of the solution’,” says Torosis. “There are tax credits out there in the workforce system but they’re not very effective because they’re small and hard to access.”
Torosis and her partners surveyed local business to find out how much money would incentivize them to hire homeless individuals. They arrived at a figure of $10,000, an amount they felt would help mitigate the risk for smaller businesses and cushion the expense of training new employees.
So far response has been enthusiastic, but as always with new programs, the challenge is getting the word out.
“We fought hard to make sure this piece of legislation was passed and now we have an opportunity to walk the talk here,” Torosis says. “We want everyone to lean in and contact their local workforce board or the website for the Homeless Hiring Tax Credit.”
For more information, or to make a reservation for a tax credit, please visit https://www.ftb.ca.gov/file/business/credits/homeless-hiring-tax-credit/index.html.
Homeless Transitional Employment Program
As much as the tax credit may incentivize business to hire the homeless, it only works if businesses can be matched with homeless individuals who are ready to work. This is where programs like the Homeless Transitional Employment Program comes in. Based out of Sacramento and managed by Amy Ruddell of the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency, HTEP aims to place 30 homeless individuals each year in jobs appropriate to their skills and needs.
“Of the 30 people I interviewed, 19 were employed at $17 an hour or more,” Ruddell says. “Most of the jobs had full benefits attached to them.”
Two of these people were Markitha Welcome and Malik Woods, a married couple with four children. They became homeless after Welcome was hospitalized with pregnancy complications and they fell behind on rent. HTEP was able to help them with transportation costs, new clothing and temporary housing. But most importantly, they found Welcome and her husband new and better employment.
“Amy really listened when we had our interview,” Welcome says. “Every job she gave us matched what we said we were experienced in.”
HTEP was able to help find Welcome and Woods jobs at Wells Fargo paying $21.75 an hour. This, Welcome says proudly, is the highest paying job she’s ever had. Even more importantly, she is now able to work from home. This gives her greater ability to attend to the needs of her children.
“I want to let everyone in our situation know that there’s help out there,” says Welcome. “It can and will get better.”
The Role of Private Partners
The final piece of this vast rubric is private partnership. As Emily Davidson, Director of Strategic Partnerships at Anthem Blue Cross puts it, “Dollars are able to bridge where the system doesn’t have funding.”
In its role as a national health insurance provider, Anthem recognizes how issues of housing and employment affect health outcomes.
“If you don’t have transportation, you don’t have a job, you don’t have nutritious food, you’re under stress, or you’re in poverty, you’re not going to be healthy,” Davidson says. “If you’re homeless, you’re not going to be able to be healthy. And so all of that really fits together.”
As a result, Davidson proposed a partnership to Bob Lanter of the California Workforce Association when they met at a conference in 2017. The resources of Anthem have been critical in passing legislation like the Homeless Hiring Tax Credit and launching programs like HTEP, while the on-the-ground expertise of CWA members has allowed for smooth implementation.
“Not just one entity should be the sole solution,” concludes Davidson. “There’s a real opportunity to make a difference together.”
A Moral Crisis
Complex problems require complex solutions. It’s tempting to think homelessness can be solved merely through more affordable housing. But that’s just a stopgap. The homeless need a living wage, jobs that use their skills, and resources like gas money and child care in order to continue working. These needs won’t be met by one agency alone. But when organizations like CWA unite with private partners like Anthem and local entities like SETA, they can change the lives of people like Markitha Welcome and Malik Woods.
Or maybe they can do even more than that: maybe they can change society itself.
“We have one of the wealthiest countries in the world,” says Torosis, “and we’re in a place where it’s very expensive to live, yet we have folks who are living on our streets. It’s a moral crisis, and that’s just not okay with us.”