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Why WIOA (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) Matters to All of Us Working to End Homelessness.

by Rebecca Allen May 3, 2016

I’ve been lucky to spend most of my career in the human services field supporting people with behavioral health issues and/or adults experiencing homelessness. I am passionate about ensuring that what nourishes and supports me (family, school, friends, job, home, etc.) is available to others.

For too many years I heard lots of doubt about the ability of the people I worked with to hold down a job:

“They can’t work.”
“Work is too stressful.”
“They need to get sober before they work.”
“They need a home first.”

I spent a good deal of time and energy trying to dispel these myths—with other providers, well-meaning folks outside the system, my family and friends, and sadly, even with the folks we served. So often these myths got in the way of progress.

But even when those with high barriers to employment* decided they were ready and able to go back to work, the mainstream workforce system wasn’t ready to work with them. It just wasn’t set up to support their needs since funding was tied to very high performance indicators which those with high barriers were not able to meet.

Job applicationAs human service providers often do, we got creative and discovered workarounds, partnered with different organizations, and the people we served also found work themselves. But we always saw the resources and expertise of the workforce system’s American Job Centers to be the Holy Grail of finding a job.

In 2014, WIOA (Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) was reauthorized by Congress. It passed with a wide bi-partisan majority, an impressive accomplishment given our current political climate. More importantly, the very legislation that inadvertently closed the door to employment for those coming out of or at-risk of homelessness now opened a door for them. WIOA is the first legislative reform of the public workforce system in 15 years and the U.S. Department of Labor has seeded expectations about doing things quite differently this time around. For example, the proposed changes include:

  • an increased focus on serving low-income Americans who have high-barriers to employment,
  • a significant commitment to serving disconnected youth by more than doubling funding for serving out-of-school youth,
  • a more realistic set of performance indicators (for example % of folks employed within a certain period of time) for individuals with high barriers to employment,
  • an emphasis on the integration and formation of cross-sector partnerships (for example Department of Labor, Education, Social Services, Housing), that will result in improved economic outcomes.

These are only some of the proposed changes and when the final regulations come out in June, I hope that the legislation fully lives up to the “I” (innovation) and “O” (opportunity) of WIOA.

WorkersIn my current role as a program officer for the Melville Charitable Trust, I’ve met hundreds of people across the country who share the Trust’s goal of ending homelessness and who recognize that employment and increasing a person or family’s income is an essential part of the solution. But I’m struck that homeless service providers are rarely aware of WIOA and its possible impact on the people they serve. I think this is probably due to two reasons:

  1. Homeless service providers are very focused on housing, as they should be, and
  2. For over a decade people experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness have not had real access to the public workforce system. Maybe at one time it was on their radar screen but it no longer is. This needs to change.

Even though the U.S. Department of Labor has not released their final WIOA regulations, states and regional localities have been busy creating their plans in response to the draft regulations.

The most important thing to know is that it’s not too late to get involved in deciding how WIOA is implemented in your community. Here’s what you can do:

  • Contact your Workforce Development Board in your region to find out who is in charge of the regional planning efforts. If they are still in the planning phase get to the table and share your wisdom about the needs of low-income, high barrier adults and youth. If the regional plan is in draft form and open to public comment, read it and respond. Having your response on record is important to ensure that people who are experiencing homelessness are included. Here is what we at the Trust submitted.
  • If the regional plan is already done, find out if there are committees that are responsible for the execution of the plan and jump on board. It’s important to build relationships with the people in your community who are on the Workforce Board and identify the knowledge and resources that you bring to the table.
  • Get up to speed about WIOA. Here are some of the sources I’ve found most helpful:

Heartland Alliance
The Center for Law and Social Policy: WIOA Game Plan for Low-Income People
National Skills Coalition: Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act Implementation

Rents aren’t going down anytime soon. So increasing the income of people who are homeless or on the brink of becoming homeless is all the more crucial. If you are already working on making WIOA work in your community, I’d love to hear more!

*High barriers to employment may include: physical disabilities, health limitations, substance abuse, or mental health problems, domestic violence, involvement with the child welfare system, housing instability, child care and transportation problems, limited English proficiency physical or mental disability, lack of a high school diploma, or a history with the criminal justice system.

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