Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Bumpy Road to Self-Sustaining Employment: Paving the Way for Homeless Youth

As a continuation of our participation in Youth Homelessness Awareness Month, we'd like to take this week to highlight an important intersection of two of DCAYA's Issue Areas: Youth Homelessness and Youth Workforce Development. For many youth in the District and across the country, experiencing homelessness for short or extended periods of time can add significant barriers to their ability to connect to and thrive within workforce development programming. This week we're joined by guest blogger Amy Louttit from the National Network for Youth to elevate the challenges homeless youth experience in accessing workforce development opportunities and to highlight some areas of potential progress for this vulnerable population.

Barriers to Employment for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

The barriers that youth who are experiencing homelessness face when trying to access jobs and career pathways are diverse and profound. At the front end of the process to engage in the employment and workforce training necessary to be self-sufficient and seek affordable housing options, many of these youth lack the basic required documentation. A result of the transiency of their lives in general, as well as the fact that many of the minors do not have a parent or guardian to sign necessary documents, many homeless youth lack access to the social security cards, birth certificates and/or state issued identification cards needed to enroll in programs or complete required tax forms. While many of these documentation hurdles cannot be avoided (social security and identification verification are ubiquitously required to work), some programs have recently made it more difficult for youth experiencing homelessness to participate. For example, JobCorps recently reversed a long-standing policy that had allowed unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness to participate without parental signatures. When we consider that Runaway and Homeless Youth programs are the best places to link disconnected youth to employment, it becomes imperative that we focus on minimizing documentation hurdles for youth who lack the stable relationships necessary to safely obtain such signatures and paperwork.

Other youth experiencing homelessness are able to access jobs, but lack the supportive services required to help them continue to develop the life skills needed to maintain employment. The cost of transportation, lack of mentoring support, and healthcare needs are frequently cited as barriers. Without including supports to counter these pervasive barriers to employment for youth experiencing homelessness, these young people are much less likely to sustain their engagement in workforce training or on-the-job experience. The detrimental effects are twofold. Youth are unable to stick with the programs or jobs that are providing them with much-needed experience, training, and income. And employers on the other end of the equation experience a confirmation of perceptions that youth employees lack the ability to demonstrate reliability, persistence, and work appropriate self-advocacy skills.

Areas of Workforce Access Opportunities for Homeless Youth

In July of 2014, President Obama signed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) into law as part of a Federal effort to fill in the gaps youth face when navigating the workforce while gaining stability. This Act which governs programs such as JobCorps and other Youth Formula Funded programs attempts to encourage local labor to engage with "disconnected youth"-- those who are not enrolled in school and are disconnected from supportive services. In many instances, the disconnected youth population is currently experiencing homelessness or has in the past. 

The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) recently collected public comments on regulations authorized by WIOA. While the Federal requirements were intentionally structured to minimize barriers to workforce and labor for unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness, some local communities are prescribing higher barrier documentation and eligibility requirements. Youth experiencing homelessness up to 24 years of age are particularly in need of programs that aid them in identifying and training for a career pathway. 

The programs funded by the DOL under WIOA are built to achieve just this goal for disconnected youth. However, at the local level some communities have instituted such requirements as passing "entry exams" to these programs. Entry exams are usually used to assess a young person's literacy and numeracy skill levels, but they can often be used as cutoff points for program eligibility. For example, many programs will not accept students who cannot perform at 8th grade literacy and numeracy levels for fear that youth will not be able to efficiently perform necessary workplace duties. These entrance exam barriers are particularly troubling for unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness because they are likely to change schools frequently. Such school mobility interrupts their education and often results in large gaps in their literacy and numeracy skills and often contributes to a young person's ability to persist through traditional pathways to high school completion. 

Understanding that delayed academic achievement is one of the underlying causes of youth disconnection, we must do better to incorporate basic skills education with workforce development training if we expect our disconnected youth to sustain engagement in school and work. Conversely, where these youth are unable to access WIOA programs, such as JobCorps, it is far more probable that they will be trapped in the cycle of poverty and homelessness due to lack of education and skills.

The Federal Government is making strides toward filling in gaps and reforming laws. Meanwhile, youth-serving organizations and their partners are capitalizing on opportunities to advocate for better policies and watching for the WIOA final rules to be published. In the interim, States are beginning to develop plans with their funding under WIOA and local partners should look for opportunities to educate local policymakers about the unique issues unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness face. Together we can help to fill in these gaps and end the challenge of youth homelessness.

Amy Louttit is the Public Policy Associate at the National Network for Youth. We thank her for highlighting critical disconnections between the youth workforce development and youth homelessness fields. 

For more information on DCAYA's efforts to address the needs of homeless youth in DC, reach out to Senior Policy Analyst Joseph Gavrilovich ( 

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