Recruiting the homeless isn’t just good hearted; it’s good business.
This story is part of series of articles exploring business solutions to homelessness.
To the untrained eye, Central City Coffee looks like any other coffee distributor. You can find its high-end coffee products at grocery stores New Seasons, World Foods and Market of Choice. Its employees make regual appearances at farmers' markets, offering a taste of their java to anyone stopping by.
It seems more like a wholesale operation than a nonprofit dedicated to employing homeless mothers; but for Central City Coffee, acting like a for-profit business is entirely the point.
The venture was created by Portland’s Central City Concern, an organization that provides assistance to the chronically homeless. Through a partnership with coffee company Nossa Familia, Central City Concern uses its manufacturing facilites, as well as a portion of its own office space, to train employees for full-time employment.
Working at Central City Coffee is a six-month training experience, teaching the employees delivery, production, sales, customer service and office managment skills while also providing payment and housing.
Credit: Central City Concern
According to Clay Cooper, senior director of employment services at Central City Concern, the project was developed for homeless mothers who come to them for assistance. “We found that one of the biggest barriers to employment for homeless mothers was that they couldn’t work jobs with changing schedules,” says Cooper.
“We found that a coffee shop was the best model for them to get experience and maintain a routine.”
Transitioning between homeless life and a regular 9-5 job is difficult. The adaptable, survivalist mindset of street living is more than a little at odds with the quick-paced, often repetitive duties of full-time employment.
That’s where organizations like Central City Concern and its employment access center come in. It offers training, housing and a host of other services aimed at helping the homeless transition to a better life. Cooper believes that his organization helps not only those people who walk through the door, but the businesses which employ them as well.
“I know that unemployment is very low and businesses are having a hard time finding enough staff,” says Cooper, who adds businesses have a lot to gain from working with people trying to transition out of homelessness.
“These people have a lot of empathy, a lot of conflict-resolution skills and they show a lot of gratitude for the job,” says Cooper. “Employers are surprised by the skills these employees bring."
Credit: Central City Concern
The homeless and formerly homeless can excel in academic and workplace environments, research shows. A study published in the Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal found that employers who hired homeless employees reported a greater willingness to participate in homeless-hiring programs in the future.
“These women are some of the hardest-working individuals, who are grateful for the employment opportunity,” says Carolyn Cesario of Ground Up PDX, a business which makes a point of employing chronically homeless women.
"While there can be challenges due to outside life circumstances, we find that extending trust, mentorship and support is a small way of telling them 'yes, we see your potential, and we believe in you.'"
But not all businesses are as inclusive when it comes to homeless employees. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a different study from the National Alliance to End Homelessness found that poor perception is the main reason companies are still hesitant to hire the chronically homeless.
The study found employers perceived the homeless as unwilling to work, as having poor hygiene and are concerned about the difficulty of integrating the homeless into the workplace. The study also found the way homeless people are portrayed in the media feeds these biases.
The truth is there is no one story for how a person ends up becoming homeless.
“A lot of people don’t realize how close they themselves are to homelessness,” says Dr. Richard Jamison, president of the Oregon Clinic, whose organization provides health resources for the chronically homeless.
“If you have a medical emergency and the hospital they take you to doesn’t take your insurance, you could be piled with debt and become homeless very quickly.”
These negative stereotypes affect the homeless population’s perceptions of themselves as much as they affect those with the ability to hire them. A study from Portland State University found that self-esteem issues are a persistent problem among homeless youth, which could lead to a lack of confidence and harm employment prospects.
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With the homelessness epidemic on the rise in Oregon, treating the problem like a minor nuisance is no longer an option. Due to emergency-room visits, public-health hazards and police budget, every homeless person costs taxpayers more than $35,000 a year. For reference, once a roof is over a homeless person's head, that number drops by more than half, to around $12,000.
Companies that choose to work with homeless employment organizations like Central City Concern aren’t just helping the taxpayer, or the economy in general, but gaining a valuable human asset. In a job market where soft skills like conflict resolution and commitment are hard to come by, chronically homeless employees could be an answer to Oregon’s labor shortage.
Of course, changing perceptions of homelessness is easier said than done. Businesses exposing themselves to homeless employees are a crucial component of that change.
“Our clients are very different people once they get help through our program,” says Cooper. “They develop skills, they develop confidence, they become good employees and they are responsible.”
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