Becca Allen, Program Officer, Melville Charitable Trust

Rebecca Allen, Program Officer, Melville Charitable Trust

The Melville Charitable Trust is the largest foundation in the US exclusively focused on ending homelessness. Located in Connecticut, Melville works in the intersections of homelessness, health, and economic security. We chatted with Becca about Secure Jobs Connecticut, an effort to connect people transitioning out of homelessness with jobs.

Melville Trust is a national foundation focused exclusively on supporting solutions to prevent and end homelessness. We concentrate on solutions within three interrelated areas – housing, health and support, and income – because it is most often problems within those three areas that lead to homelessness in the first place. 

Within each of these areas, we look to support efforts that will:

  • fundamentally change the way that people, organizations, and networks do business
  • support collaboration and risk-taking across agencies
  • support the adoption of more effective policies and practices
  • ultimately result in better outcomes in the lives of real people

When it comes to income, it’s about better access to jobs, skill building, work experience, and income growth. It’s also about leveling the playing field so that everyone has a shot at a decent paying job despite the odds stacked against them.

We provide funding to a number of national and Connecticut-based organizations to improve economic security for people who experience homelessness.

When it comes to supporting families, we are most proud of the work we are doing in Connecticut through a pilot called Secure Jobs. We learned about Secure Jobs from The Paul & Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation in Massachusetts. Secure Jobs was designed to increase the income of families transitioning from homelessness to housing by connecting them to the education, training, and supports they need to secure and maintain stable, family-sustaining employment. Secure Jobs seeks to accomplish this by better integrating and coordinating the efforts of the homelessness and public workforce systems to effectively serve families participating in Connecticut’s rapid rehousing program. We focus on the following strategies:

  • Building and strengthening collaboration between regional rapid rehousing partners and workforce development partners;
  • Reenvisioning how service delivery agencies and systems can work together effectively and efficiently to develop innovative approaches to improving the economic security of families exiting homelessness;
  • Engaging multiple partners and stakeholders to reduce barriers and disincentives to employment through different ways of conducting business;
  • Creating operational linkages that produce real results and promote sustaining methods to effectively connect families challenged by housing stability with workforce services; and
  • Streamlining each family’s access to appropriate services delivered by the right provider(s) at the right times and locations.

In 2015, we launched Secure Jobs with 25+ private funders throughout Connecticut. Four regions were awarded up to $100,000 each year for three years.

This has been a multi-year journey of learning for the regions and funders on how to better serve families with economic insecurity. Several promising practices have been revealed:

  • Employment navigators – Employment navigators work with all families in Secure Jobs. They are not a client’s case manager, yet they work with multiple case managers to focus on the whole family and their needs. They also spend their time building relationships and increasing access to resources from multiple systems, like housing, employment, benefits, disability, childcare, behavioral health, etc.
  • Interdisciplinary teams – The siloing of systems is a powerful force. Each system provides their own case management to the family – one for housing, one for employment, one for health, etc. They rarely sit down together to talk about the needs of the family. The client services navigator facilitates case conferencing sessions with the multitude of stakeholders. What was so amazing was the number of solutions generated to address the challenges families were facing. This team was in it together to help each family succeed.
  • Flexible dollars – Each region allocated flexible funds to address barriers to employment. Regions used these flexible funds to address key gaps in the current systems and to meet immediate client needs related to transportation, child care, phone and/or utility bills, education and training, and work clothes. Most of the flexible dollars were spent on transportation and child care. For example, in 2017, there was a child care funding shortage. Flex dollars were used to help families pay for child care until the state resumed support. Without these funds to pay for childcare, families would not be able to work.

This pilot is seeing positive outcomes. Of the 230 clients served, 50% got new or better jobs since starting the pilot. For those clients who got new or better jobs, their average monthly earned income went from $425 to $1,618. For all clients, average monthly wages more than doubled over 15 months from $464 to $1,016. In terms of housing retention, only 5% of clients returned to homelessness.

We still have a way to go. Wages are still very low ($11.52/hour) and there is a good deal of job and income instability. Forty five percent of clients had a $1,000+ decrease in wages from one quarter to the next, with 31% losing their job for at least one quarter ($0 in wages).

Melville is working with other funders to take the lessons learned from the first three years of Secure Jobs in Connecticut and build upon them for Secure Jobs 2.0, which will launch next year.

Unlike the homeless service system, where leadership, direction, and guidance have become more clear and consistent at the federal, state, and local levels, the mainstream workforce system is far more decentralized. Its leadership, funding structures, accountability, and direction vary widely across the country, making collaboration and systems change a very local issue. Finding local change agents who are interested in improving services for people with high barriers to employment will quickly illuminate the policy and practice changes that need to be addressed. 

There is no clear, consistent system of accountability that holds labor, homeless service systems, or on-the-ground workforce programs responsible for advancing employment and economic opportunity for homeless or housing unstable jobseekers. Working to clarify ownership and accountability and increase funding at the local, state, and federal level should be a priority.

One policy that has great potential on the public workforce side is the implementation of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). As communities implement WIOA, they have the potential to leverage its funding and flexibility to develop a greater number of employment, training, education, and support service solutions for individuals experiencing homelessness or housing instability.

One of our national grantees, Heartland Alliance, has done some great work in the policy and advocacy space. They have a number of recommendations in their Pathways Forward report.

Families experiencing homelessness are disproportionately headed by women of color. Through Secure Jobs, we are working to identify and rectify policies, processes, and practices within the public workforce system and across mainstream systems that block or hinder their access to employment opportunity.

We aren’t a workforce funder, per se. Our primary focus is ending homelessness and that is done by all people living in safe, stable, and affordable housing. When housing is compromised, it can impact health, education, employment, and so on.

When we launched Secure Jobs, we purposefully focused on a population: families exiting homelessness into housing. We knew that centering on the family would allow more funders to come to the table who may not identify “homelessness” in their portfolios. We started with 4 funders and our table grew to 26. As a result of being population, not issue, focused, we started to see the larger connections between our different foundations’ work.

As we launch Secure Jobs 2.0, we’d love to learn about innovations in public workforce systems. We’d be interested to know of local workforce systems that have created partnerships and worked together differently to achieve better outcomes, especially for families with significant barriers to employment.

I have three simple pieces of advice:

  • Sit at the table together – Gather partners who fund in different systems so that you learn from each other and break down your own silos.
  • Focus on the population instead of an issue – This allows you to have a unified goal and outcomes.
  • Work across systems – You can’t do family work without doing multi-system efforts. You can’t separate the parent and child, and you can’t separate the adult-serving and child-serving systems.