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A hand up for the homeless: a smart business decision.


A Smart Business Decision

A year ago, Jodi Campbell, recruiting manager for Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort, decided to try hiring a few seasonal employees from the Salt Lake City Community Shelter. Encouraged by Larry Witherow, the director of employment resources at the shelter, she left some employment applications and a list of available positions with the shelter.

"We'd figured we'd be interviewing about 20 people," she says. "Instead, we talked with 60, and had to turn even more away." The shelter screened applicants, scheduled interviews, and helped with information on references.

That day, Campbell hired 15 new employees. Since then, they have successfully held down jobs at Snowbird as cashiers, cooks, housekeepers, and warehouse workers, belying the widespread stereotypes of the homeless as unemployable or unreliable. Of this pioneering group, about 10 have stayed beyond the end of the winter season in year-round employment at Snowbird. Campbell has heard no complaints about their skill levels and plans to continue hiring 20 to 30 people a year.

Snowbird's program for hiring the homeless is evidence of a new commitment in the business community, a determination to help homeless people help themselves out of poverty, with a chance to "get in through the door" to employment and housing.

Down and Out in Utah

More than 1,000 people stay in homeless shelters in Utah every night, according to a survey of homeless people conducted last January by the Utah Department of Community and Economic Development. More than 34 shelters serve the homeless around the state; most are at or above capacity. On the streets, there may be 1,500 to 2,000 more people sleeping in cars, business doorways, or parks.

As the problem has worsened over the past decade, the homeless population has changed; now the people in the shelters come from a large cross-section of Utah. Though a few of the homeless still fit the stereotype of the bleary-eyed "skid row bum" or the mentally ill "bag lady," there are also younger men and women of all races, couples dressed for farm work, mothers with strollers, and children piled into the back of pickup trucks on Rio Grande Street outside the Salt Lake shelter.

Most of these people fell through the safety net of a stable job and family structure to the streets within the past year, according to the state's survey. Usually a catastrophic event propelled them from their homes--a medical crisis, an unexpected layoff, a fire, a flight from domestic abuse, or a lost struggle with substance abuse. Most are ill-equipped to survive on the street and desperate to return to a life of dignity and respect.

Emergency Measures

A large proportion of all the sheltered homeless in the state are in the Salt Lake Community Shelter and Resource Center maintained by the Travelers Aid Society. This shelter--actually three separate facilities for women, men, and families--has grown since its opening in 1988 to meet a variety of needs of the homeless and near-homeless. In addition to the changing population of about 450 who stay each night at the shelters, 25-50 other people visit and use Travelers Aid's services daily.

Other organizations providing shelter in Salt Lake County include the Marillac House, St. Mary's Home, Rescue Mission, Rescue Haven, and the YWCA of Salt Lake. Many churches and other non-profit organizations have responded to the crisis with a variety of other services for impoverished families and individuals, from emergency food programs and thrift stores to job training and alcohol and drug counseling.

Some businesses have also helped share the huge service burden. For example, Cotton Bottom Baby, a diaper service in Salt Lake City, provides clean cloth diapers for infants in the family shelter.

Beyond Temporary Solutions

Though these emergency services have likely saved many lives, enthusiasm for the shelter system has dampened in recent years as the limits of emergency measures have become obvious to tired taxpayers, overwhelmed shelter caseworkers, and even some shelter residents themselves who decry the trap of dependency.

"The shelter is just part of the answer," acknowledges Julie Shepherd, a staff member at Travelers Aid. "It's a vital first step, but there need to be more steps."

The focus has widened to include stopping the problem at its source by increasing the availability of jobs and housing. Along with other shelter workers, Shepherd advocates more preventive measures and more support for former shelter residents who need help staying in new jobs and new housing. She has helped homeless people form self-help groups that meet weekly to share advice and resources. Other programs at the Salt Lake shelters focus on transitional housing assistance, employment resources, and counseling.

"We've been using emergency means to meet long-term problems," says Jerry Merrill, director of the Lotus Project, a non-profit "business incubator" in Salt Lake City designed to generate jobs for homeless workers. "The long-term need is for employment. Let's get people supporting themselves and paying some taxes of their own."

Job Offers

Like Snowbird, TW Recreational Services in Yellowstone National Park has found that homeless people can make good seasonal service workers. The company, a major concessionaire in Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Parks and at the Grand Canyon North Rim, hires 3,200 people each year at Yellowstone to staff its hotels and restaurants, including, starting last year, several groups of 30-35 homeless individuals from the Salt Lake City shelter.

TWR interviews potential employees at the Salt Lake shelter, transports those hired to Yellowstone, and provides housing, meals, and uniforms. "All they have to do is bring themselves," says Janice Hubbard, director of human resources, "and for many of them, that's all they have."

Homeless employees have helped TWR meet its staffing needs and fulfill its equal opportunity commitment. "There aren't a lot of employees out there, particularly when the college students go back to school in the fall," Hubbard says. "This is another resource we can pull in." The company has reached out to other alternative populations as well, with employment programs for inner-city and Navajo youth.

No special training has been necessary for homeless workers, Hubbard says, and some have returned for a second season with the resort. Others have transferred to TWR's Florida resort, the Flamingo Marina Outpost, or have moved on to better-paying jobs elsewhere.

One non-profit organization in Salt Lake City, the Lotus Project, attempts to create jobs for the homeless and disadvantaged on a large scale. Using a business development program to provide jobs and work-skills development, Lotus' "incubator" provides fledgling businesses with space, general business services, trained employees, and connections with needed funding, according to director Jerry Merrill. In return, homeless people get transitional work.

"If people can earn a decent, steady wage, they can get off the street," Merrill maintains. "They can become |human' again, after being beaten up on the street--both physically and psychologically. Then the path of opportunity opens up for them."

One new product at Lotus is the "Power Pillow" developed by University of Utah neurologist Jack Petajan and biomedical engineer Stephen Topaz. Designed to produce passive motion exercise in limbs, the compressed air device may be used in the treatment of persons with paralysis or in other situations where active exercise is difficult, as in space travel. Full production is expected to begin within six months, with 6-10 homeless employees initially.

Some businessowners are incredulous at what Lotus Project proposes. "They say, |You're kidding,'" Merrill laughs. "They say, |These aren't employable people. They're all transients, addicts, and so forth.'"

Once they've started working with the homeless, however, Merrill says employers are happy with the quality of the work and the variety of skills at their disposal, from carpenters and sheetrockers to welders. Lotus provides screening and arranges for training from local community colleges where necessary.

"If employers review their hiring needs, they'll see which jobs they could open up for entry for homeless folks," Merrill says. "Every industry has such jobs."

Around the country, other businesses have responded to the crisis with innovative programs: in one frequently cited model is the program started in 1985 by Days Inn of America. The Atlanta-based hotel-motel chain hires the homeless as reservation sales agents in its Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn., national reservation centers. About 15 homeless persons at a time work answering calls to area code 800 telephone numbers, earning $4.80 to $5.90 an hour. Days Inn started the program because "it makes good business sense," says Richard Smith, senior human resources vice president.

"It's not a social experiment," Smith insists. "We did it because of a void. We had positions that were difficult to fill and saw using homeless people as an opportunity. They had potential. We made a commitment to do this to meet the business needs of the organization."

Days Inn interviews only candidates referred by shelters and uses a screening procedure. The company also provides homeless employees with hotel rooms at $5 per night and health insurance. Employees in the program are required to save a percentage of their salary toward a down payment on housing. Two-thirds of those participating are still with the program or have progressed to high-paying jobs.

Arby's is testing a program called "Alternative Labor" to employ homeless women in its restaurants. Arby's provides full-time employment, transportation passes, free meals, and a matched savings program leading to permanent housing. Service providers screen applicants and provide ongoing support.

In North Carolina, the Winston-Salem Journal has hired 38 homeless people as street hawkers. The sellers, stationed at street corners and intersections around town, have boosted circulation for the newspaper significantly, selling 800 additional papers on weekdays and 1,400 on Sundays. Each hawker makes about $150 per week for the part-time, flexible work.

Gaining Good Workers

Those who have worked with employing the homeless have advice for other businesses as they start a new hiring program. Though the homeless can meet businesses' needs as well as any other group of employees, they say, some simple measures help to ease the transition into the working world.

"You have to remember that many homeless people have no support base," Witherow points out. "They're coming from a situation where they have nothing, and it takes time and patience for them to learn the rules of a new environment." He advises pairing the new employees with "mentors," either within the company or through the shelter's mentoring program. The mentors can help new employees learn business skills as well as less obvious work skills such as choosing appropriate clothing, calling in sick, and dealing with crises at home without missing work.

"Businesses can make the employment conditional--put homeless employees on probation for a while," Merrill suggests. "But they should place them with an understanding supervisor, someone who is serious and can make sure they take responsibility but who will work with them."

Paradigm Shift

As businesses have started to grapple with the problem of homelessness, they've noticed the lack of comprehensive planning about poverty issues and the pervasive apathy and misunderstanding among many sectors of society. So far there is no grand strategy, no master blueprint on the drawing board for solving the crisis of homelessness. As a result, there is a need for businesspeople to help develop a consensus for turning the tide.

"Politically, there's a lot that businesses can do," maintains Donna Gebler, director of the Women's and Family Shelters in Salt Lake City. "Businesses could exert enormous clout in lobbying for low-income housing legislation." She suggests companies also get involved in helping raise awareness of homelessness through business councils and publicity campaigns.

One such project is "Close to Home," a homelessness awareness project organized by Cheryl Cox, community development administrator for KSL Television. "The biggest problem is breaking down the stereotype," says Cox. "If we can educate the whole state about the problem, we can help people figure out what they can do."

Involvement seems to bring a sense of accomplishment for businesspeople. "There's a great deal of satisfaction in doing this sort of work," says Pamela Atkinson of Intermountain Health Care's Mission Services, an advocate for business participation in efforts to end homelessness. She demonstrates a lot of faith in the Salt Lake community. "There are so many people who really do care, but they don't know how to give," she says. "If we create an opportunity for them to serve, they're happy to help make a difference."

Sandra McIntyre is an independent writer and editor in Salt Lake City.
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Title Annotation:Salt Lake City implements programs for hiring the homeless; includes related article
Author:McIntyre, Sandra
Publication:Utah Business
Date:Oct 1, 1991
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