Income & Employment / 2013

MADE by DWC: Education and Job Readiness for Homeless Women

MADE by DWC: Education and Job Readiness for Homeless Women

Idea submitted in the My LA2050 Maker Challenge by Downtown Women's Center

Women experiencing homelessness face complex, intersecting barriers on their paths to personal stability. Since 1978, the Downtown Women’s Center (DWC) has been empowering women to break the cycles of homelessness and poverty by providing a wide array of services that can be tailored to each woman’s needs. The recent economic downturn has shown an increased demand for income and employment opportunities, and women on Los Angeles’ Skid Row are no exception. DWC, an agency that serves 4,300 homeless and extremely low-income women annually, is meeting that need by expanding our comprehensive Education and Job Readiness Program to serve the complex income and employment needs of homeless, formerly homeless, and extremely low-income women. With over three decades of experience, DWC is uniquely prepared to offer services for the hardest to employ women. Many of the women we serve may never be able to reenter the traditional workforce because of physical disabilities, mental health issues, ageing, or other barriers related to their experience of homelessness. Our programs allow these women to learn practical skills, gain a sense of purpose, and regain self-sustainability and earn income from alternative job opportunities. Our Education and Job Readiness Program is made possible through DWC’s on-site Learning Center, as well as our two MADE by DWC social enterprises, a café and gift shop opened in April 2011, and a resale boutique that opened in November 2012. Both businesses offer hands-on job training opportunities, as well as support the local economy in downtown Los Angeles while inviting community members to engage in ending homelessness through socially conscious shopping. SET to Create In 2013, we are building on the initial successes of our SET to Create product-development program allows participants to gain soft skills by participating in workshops, as they simultaneously gain practical skills in creating handcrafted products to industry standards. The MADE by DWC product line emphasizes sustainable goods and includes organic soaps and candles, jewelry, ornaments, and upcycled picture frames and bound journals. Women who complete an initial certification process are able to earn supplemental income, as DWC purchases their items for resale in our two stores. SET to Work With the recent opening of our second social enterprise, a resale boutique, we are able to offer even more hands-on job-training opportunities. This year, we are piloting an intensive 12-week job-readiness training program through both stores, which we will expand as we grow our businesses and community partners. SET to Work participants will develop marketable skills including inventory management, customer service, food handling, and administrative tasks. Each woman will receive one-on-one case management to set goals and address housing, sustenance, and health-related needs. Program graduates will then be connected to employment opportunities, including exclusive externships and entry-level positions designated by our growing network of corporate partners. 2013 Impact Our Education and Job Readiness Program will impact LA2050’s Income and Employment indicator by improving literacy, job readiness, employment, and employment retention among homeless and low-income women on downtown Los Angeles’ Skid Row. This year, DWC plans to engage 925 women in services through our Learning Center; launching SET to Work and scaling up our SET to Create workshops will allow us to provide paths out of homelessness and poverty for more women. Our Holistic Approach DWC’s services and programs have been developed with an understanding that the women we serve continue to experience the barriers, trauma, and daily hardships correlated with homelessness and poverty. DWC is committed to meeting each woman’s needs and to providing a safe haven where women can access the resources they need to remove these barriers. All program participants have access to DWC’s full spectrum of supportive services, offered through our Day Center on Skid Row. Along with basic needs such as showers, meals, and clothing, DWC provides individualized counseling and case management; a Learning Center offering a variety of courses and computer access; an on-site health clinic offering extensive medical and mental health services; and referrals to housing and local community resources. All programs are also open to residents who live in our 119 units of permanent supportive housing.

What are some of your organization’s most important achievements to date?

Over our 35-year history, the Downtown Women’s Center has created innovative programming focused on meeting the unique needs of homeless, formerly homeless, and extremely low-income women. When the Center first opened in 1978, it was the first and only resource for women living on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.

In 1986, DWC opened the United States’ first permanent supportive housing for women, a program that has since been modeled as a national prototype. DWC now offers 119 units of permanent supportive housing among our two Residences to women who are primarily elderly, mentally ill, and/or physically disabled. More than 95% of the 500 women we have served through our Residence program have remained permanently housed.

We have also scaled up our housing efforts beyond our own 119 apartments by piloting our Critical Time Intervention (CTI) model with clients housed off-site. Our CTI model, a proven evidence-based program launched in 2011, provides intensive case management for individuals transitioning out of chronic homelessness, ensuring that they have the support and access to resources they need to stay housed. DWC is also committed to sharing best practices; this April, our Director of Clinical Health Services and Lead CTI Case Manager will present DWC’s CTI model at the Housing California Conference in Sacramento.

As the need on Skid Row has continued to grow, DWC is grateful that we have been able to expand our programming and services, offered through our Day Center, Learning Center, two Residence locations, and on-site Medical and Mental Health Center. In 2012, DWC served 4,300 women with 90,000 meals, 23,000 showers, and 6,500 case management and counseling sessions.

Along with our direct service, DWC contributes to national and local policy discussions and to best practice research in service provision for people experiencing homelessness. In 2001, DWC spearheaded the Downtown Women’s Action Coalition, addressing women’s policy and research needs. The coalition has since performed several needs assessments for women on Skid Row.

DWC’s well-reputed history is a testament to our mission and work in the community. DWC received a Los Angeles Office of the City Attorney Commendation in 1993, a Bank of America Neighborhood Excellence Initiative Neighborhood Builder Award in 2007, and “Organization of the Year” by the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2011.

Several other organizations have utilized DWC as a prototype for creating services for homeless women, including Friends In Deed in Pasadena, and organizations in San Francisco, San Jose, Amarillo, Texas; and New Orleans.

Finally, we attribute our long-term success to the overwhelming community support and volunteer efforts that allow us to make the greatest impact with limited resources. DWC has been recognized as a Blue Ribbon Service Enterprise by the state of California, and our model has been developed into a case study in best practices in nonprofit volunteer engagement.

Please identify any partners or collaborators who will work with you on this project.

Our social enterprise partners include corporations, small businesses, and other agencies who have provided support for our Education and Job Readiness Program through cash and in-kind donations and pro bono consultation, as well as by carrying our product line. These partners include Bloomingdale’s; Hudson News; the Skirball Center; Munger, Tolles, & Olson; Yahoo!; Groundwork Coffee; and Chrysalis.

Other partners include our wide range of volunteers, including students, working professionals, retirees, and corporate groups. We have also engaged other Skid Row agencies to encourage referrals to our programs; these include LAMP, St. Vincent’s, LA Christian Health Center, and JWCH Institute.

Please explain how you will evaluate your project. How will you measure success?

DWC measures both the total number of women accessing each of our services and the progress of individual participants. These numbers are audited on a monthly basis and used to determine our overall social impact.

Each woman we serve through our Education and Job Readiness Program will complete an initial assessment to capture a brief education and employment history and her related short- and long-term goals. Participants will attend a one-on-one counseling session to determine the next steps in their development path, as well as complete assessment tests in basic reading, math, and computer use.

Success for our Education and Job Readiness Program participants will be measured in relation to our Impact Metrics, which measure each individual woman’s progress on the path to stability and her ability to end the cycle of homelessness in her life. Our measurement guide evaluates each woman’s progress on a 5-point scale to determine her success at meeting basic needs; accessing healthcare; accessing mental health services; achieving a sense of self-worth and purpose; building a social network; and maintaining a reliable source of income. Additionally, we consider a woman’s access to a safe, permanent home. The measurement guides are implemented when a woman first accesses services, and are administered each six months by case managers and other program staff.

To track our metrics, DWC developed an outcome database to record and analyze these performance measures. These metrics reflect DWC’s service model of reducing barriers to personal stability, which is an essential component of success for women in homelessness looking to re-enter the workforce.

In 2013, we plan to engage 925 women in services offered within our Learning Center. Of these, 225 women will engage in the Education and Job Readiness Program, and 75% will complete their assessed learning level and progress to the subsequent level. Our pilot SET to Work program will engage 54 women in the intensive 12-week intensive curriculum, providing job-readiness training, vocational education, and one-on-one case management.
We will evaluate program success throughout this year with our initial cohort of 54 women, with the intention to improve and expand impact each year.

This year, we will offer SET to Create product-development 700 workshops, engaging 140 women in learning practical and soft skills. Of the 140 participants, 90% will attend at least four workshops and receive income from their crafted products.

In addition to evaluating program outcomes, we will continue refining our business models for our two MADE by DWC social enterprises. As with any new venture, we will continue to test products in the market, form new sales relationships with businesses and online channels, and grow our local customer base. These business expansions will allow us to continue scaling our Education and Job Readiness Program to reach more women.

How will your project benefit Los Angeles?

DWC’s mission is to provide permanent supportive housing and a safe and healthy community fostering dignity, respect, and personal stability, and to advocate ending homelessness for women. Los Angeles is currently the homeless capital of the United States; the Los Angeles Homeless Services Agency’s 2011 count found more than 50,000 homeless individuals in LA County, with a high concentration of those individuals on Skid Row. One-third of these homeless individuals are adult women.

Our Education and Job Readiness Program is a direct response to the service barriers and gaps that directly impact Los Angeles’ homeless and extremely low-income women. According to a 2010 Women’s Needs Assessment, the Skid Row community has an extreme lack of accessible education and employment opportunities.

Among women surveyed, 68.2% lacked a high school diploma or GED equivalent, and only 7.6% had college degrees, the lowest level since the survey’s creation in 2001. Nearly half (46.9%) lacked access to computer classes and/or internet, and 59.4% of women identified educational opportunities as a resource they would most like to see in local community and service centers. Of women surveyed, 90.3% did not believe there were employment opportunities available in the downtown area, and only 4.3% reported income from employment.

Women in homelessness are often thrust into instability as a direct result of poor physical and/or mental health, disability, loss of employment, and familial loss, among other issues. As federal funding for affordable housing and social programs faces further cuts, we are investing efforts into providing women with practical skills and alternative income to increase their long-term independence.

Our Education and Job Readiness Program will influence the personal wellness and stability of Los Angeles’ most underserved population, while also impacting the well-being of our local community on multiple levels. We will (1) increase direct access to job-training and employment services (2) ensure stabilization of our participants, assisting them in building skills and reentering the workforce, (3) reduce utilization and decrease dependency on high-cost emergency services, (4) mobilize the Los Angeles community through volunteerism and the shopping experience, and (5) improve the overall social, economic, and health outcomes on Skid Row.

In addition to providing direct benefits to homeless women, DWC’s programs engage members of the greater Los Angeles community. Volunteers lead many of our SET to Create product-development workshops, offering both practical skills and mentorship to participants. Our two MADE by DWC stores bring in foot traffic and engage our neighbors in the local economy. Additionally, the MADE by DWC product line is offered through several locations across Los Angeles, including Bloomingdale’s in Century City, and several Hudson News locations at LAX, expanding the scope of our public education efforts.

What would success look like in the year 2050 regarding your indicator?

DWC’s vision of success in 2050 is an end to homelessness through innovation and cross-functional services. While our grant proposal specifically addresses the Income and Employment indicator, we recognize that the causes and effects of homelessness reach across several of the indicators outlined in the LA2050 report. Our Education and Job Readiness Program is just one of the ways in which the Downtown Women’s Center provides a pathway out of homelessness; our holistic approach is focused on removing multiple intersecting barriers that women in homelessness and extreme poverty may face.

We envision a Los Angeles where all women can access the resources they need to establish and maintain her personal stability. In terms of income and employment, our Education and Job Readiness Program is designed to ensure that all women who are interested in participating in the local economy have opportunities to do so, whether through re-entry into the traditional workforce or, for those who face extreme barriers, through alternative income opportunities. The collaborative, supportive environment we promote in our SET to Create and SET to Work workshops will provide a place where women can earn an income, break out of the isolation of homelessness, contribute to the local community, and gain a sense of fulfillment.

In addition to striving to improve outcomes for homeless and low-income women as a direct service provider, the Downtown Women’s Center also engages in advocacy efforts to increase affordable and permanent supportive housing options and ensure that fewer individuals are becoming homeless for the first time. Because of that, we consider success in the year 2050 for the Income and Employment indicator as closely linked to the Housing and Social Connectedness indicators, as well.

As a service enterprise that engages more than 2,500 individuals in volunteerism each year, we recognize that it takes the support of the entire community to achieve our vision of a Los Angeles where all individuals have access to housing, healthcare, and employment. As we work to achieve our goals, however, we see the need for employment programs that take into account the unique employment challenges that homeless and formerly homeless women face.

Our two social enterprise stores, our café and resale boutique, provide spaces where women experiencing physical and mental health barriers are able to gain hard and soft skills, whether to enter the work force or to develop alternative streams of income to support their efforts to regain personal stability. Beyond impact in Los Angeles, we seek to end homelessness for all women, and as such, we envision that by 2050 our model and best practices will be leveraged by other communities across the nation.