Gail Gilman is the Executive Director of Community Housing Partnership, a nonprofit that helps homeless individuals secure housing and become self-sufficient. In 2007, Community Housing Partnership teamed up with REDF to launch a social venture called Solutions SF dedicated to employing the formerly homeless in lobby services jobs.
This November, during Homelessness Awareness Month, Gail reflects on the state of homelessness in America, how to help homeless individuals overcome barriers to employment, and the future of Solutions SF.
November is Homelessness Awareness Month. Why is this an important month? What aspects of homelessness do you believe are important for people to know?
Homelessness is a systemic problem across the United States. It touches every community: urban centers, rural centers, even suburban middle America. It’s important to have a month where we can highlight homelessness as a widespread issue we need to remedy.
The face of homelessness has been changing throughout the decades. Homelessness started as a blight of single men. Now there are many families experiencing homelessness. One quarter of all foster youth experience homelessness because when they transition out of foster care, most of them don’t have the stability or the skills they need to be successful. We need to elevate awareness of solutions so that we can build momentum across the country and pull in the investments needed to end homelessness. No one in the United States should be without a home.
What barriers do homeless individuals face in participating in the workforce? How can society assist in removing those barriers?
The largest barrier is a lack of stable housing. One of our fundamental beliefs is that folks need to have a place to live before they can successfully maintain a job.
Homeless individuals face many other barriers: gaps in work history, criminal backgrounds, or credit issues. People who have not worked for a long time usually need to go through training for both soft and hard skills to successfully reenter the workforce. With the downturn in the economy, there have been more and more people vying for low-skill low-wage jobs than in the past, and the competitive environment makes it challenging for anyone to find gainful employment. If an individual is homeless on top of that, they need extra support.
How does Community Housing Partnership assist formerly homeless clients to set them up for success?
One way in which we help clients be successful is through our Learning Academy and a social enterprise model that really embraces formerly homeless individuals. We train our clients in lobby services and place them in jobs in affordable or supportive housing. Our line of business is not only accessible for them, it plays to their strengths. When our clients are sitting at the front desk, having an understanding of where the tenants are coming from actually makes our staff more successful. We’re also providing them with customer service skills that are transferrable to other fields.
What happens after a client in the employment pathway obtains a full-time job?
I’ve seen individuals go through our Learning Academy, become employed by our social enterprise, and land full time jobs in property management companies in San Francisco. Some of them maintain those jobs, and as the minimum wage goes up in the city and becomes more of a living wage, they’ll be making $15 an hour with full-time employment, stable housing, healthcare benefits, and they’re able to provide for themselves and their families. Others have grown their skills and been promoted to assistant managers and building managers. Property management is a great pathway and career ladder for individuals to be able to get higher wage jobs with prestige and responsibility.
Where do you envision Solutions SF to be 5 or 10 years down the road?
We currently provide jobs in affordable and supportive housing buildings. I envision us breaking into the private rental market and providing lobby services in market-rate rental developments. I’d also like to see us have the ability to place folks in other customer service sectors: grocery stores, pharmacies, and other types of retail.
Any last thoughts?
One of the biggest misconceptions by the general public is that individuals who have experienced homelessness don’t want to improve their lives, don’t want to go back to work, or don’t want to change their circumstances. After almost 20 years of doing this line of work, I know how far that is from the truth. The majority of individuals don’t enjoy living in poverty or living on the streets, and they want to regain their lives and become self-sufficient. They want to go back to work, and we can help by giving them the right opportunity and support.