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Programs Integrate Workforce and Housing Services

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Summer/Fall 2018   


Programs Integrate Workforce and Housing Services


      • Strategies to better integrate workforce and housing systems, such as reducing system-specific jargon, sharing data, and colocating services, can help families achieve self-sufficiency.
      • Opportunity Chicago’s six workforce pathways helped Chicago Housing Authority residents access job training, explore careers, improve literacy, develop basic skills, and enter the labor market.
      • The Rapid Re-Housing for Families Pilot in King County, Washington, combined rapid rehousing and workforce services to mitigate employment barriers and improve job stability so that participants experiencing homelessness could afford long-term housing costs after rapid rehousing supports ended.

Housing and employment are inextricably linked, and families vulnerable to homelessness rely jointly on workforce and housing systems.1 Often, however, providers in the two systems operate independently of each other. Families receiving housing services may have to search for employment assistance on their own, and employers may have expectations that do not consider the urgent situations of families experiencing homelessness. More information sharing and collaboration across silos could help put households on the path to self-sufficiency.2 This article discusses two programs that successfully bridged workforce and housing services. Opportunity Chicago identified and placed Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) residents in more than 5,500 jobs in 5 years by enrolling them in different workforce development initiatives such as transitional jobs, bridge programs with City Colleges of Chicago (CCC), and adult education classes. In King County, Washington, the integration of rapid rehousing and Employment Navigator services helped improve the circumstances of families experiencing homelessness. Both programs led to positive outcomes for participants looking to improve job skills and readiness for employment and stable, permanent housing, and offer lessons that other communities can build upon.

Opportunity Chicago

In 2000, CHA adopted the 15-year Plan for Transformation (the Plan) to renovate or rebuild about 25,000 public housing units in Chicago with mixed-income housing.3 According to Mary Howard, chief resident services officer at CHA, the Plan included a commitment to current tenants that they could return to the newly renovated mixed-income units provided that they complied with their leases and met the criteria established in each property’s Tenant Selection Plan, which included the requirement that all work-abled persons over age 18 must be employed for at least 30 hours per week or enrolled in job training or education programs. Although the Plan was designed to better integrate low-income residents into the broader socioeconomic dynamic of the city, it lacked a strategy to help residents satisfy this work requirement. To fill this gap, a public-private partnership known as Opportunity Chicago was created in 2006 to focus on workforce development initiatives. Supported through the Chicago Community Trust, Opportunity Chicago included several key partners, including the Partnership for New Communities, CHA, the Chicago Jobs Council, the local workforce investment board, philanthropic organizations, and city agencies. The goal of the 5-year initiative was to help 5,000 low-skilled, low-income CHA residents attain employment and self-sufficiency. The partners appointed the Chicago Jobs Council — a nonprofit workforce development coalition composed of organizations, businesses, and individuals — to administer and facilitate the program. Opportunity Chicago’s partners also formed a Strategic Advisers Group that advised partners on best practices, evaluated the program’s activities, developed additional resources, and advocated for policy change.4

As a Moving to Work (MTW) public housing agency, CHA has the flexibility to integrate workforce services into its programs and develop staff capacity. In 2009, CHA instituted a work requirement for residents of traditional public housing stating that those between the ages of 18 and 61 must work at least 20 hours per week or be actively engaged in activities that will lead to work.5 Through a range of marketing strategies, Partnership for New Communities contractors reached out to CHA residents, and CHA also connected residents to workforce programs. CHA residents often accessed employment services through a case manager at FamilyWorks, CHA’s case coordination program. Another common strategy for recruiting residents, according to Howard, was for workforce and housing providers to collaborate to identify families waiting for new mixed-income housing and help them successfully meet the tenant requirements. Although the CHA work requirement came toward the end of the Opportunity Chicago initiative, the idea was to encourage residents to be prepared to meet the requirements of the Tenant Selection Plans in mixed-income housing, Howard noted.6

Fostering Positive Outcomes

More than 6,700 CHA residents participated in Opportunity Chicago, and more than 5,500 were placed in jobs, exceeding the initiative’s 5,000 goal. A total of 77 percent of participants attained employment after exiting the program, and the number of participants securing jobs increased each year. Residents retained more than half of the job placements for at least two years, and more than half of the participants reported wage increases.7 Vital to these successes, according to Howard, was testing different workforce models that met people at various stages of employment readiness. By issuing contracts to service providers, Opportunity Chicago tested six different workforce pathways: FamilyWorks, Transitional Jobs (TJ), CCC, Workforce Investment Act (WIA) initiatives, Industry Skills Training, and Contextualized Literacy. Although not every provider in these workforce pathways was part of the Strategic Advisers Group, they met to share experiences and lessons learned. In addition, Opportunity Chicago led to much broader collaboration between city agencies that had never worked together, and CHA became more integrated with other agencies and organizations to better serve its residents.8

Central to Opportunity Chicago was the involvement of partners and providers around a clear and measurable goal for a specific population.9 In 2008, FamilyWorks replaced the previous Service Connector system to provide residents with more wraparound case management and job placement and retention services. FamilyWorks was also instrumental in helping residents fulfill the CHA work requirement, and it had the largest participant enrollment out of the six program types. By the time Opportunity Chicago ended, a total of 4,532 residents had sought employment services from FamilyWorks or Service Connector, and 82 percent of FamilyWorks participants were working after exiting the program. With the overall goal of helping at least 1,000 CHA residents obtain unsubsidized jobs, TJ was the next largest of the program types, enrolling a total of 1,793 individuals. TJ offered job training and time-limited, subsidized employment placement to help residents with minimal or no previous work experience enter the labor market.10 Over the course of Opportunity Chicago, 1,260 (70%) of TJ participants worked in subsidized jobs earning an average of $8.49 per hour. Of those placed in subsidized jobs, 63 percent worked at least 30 hours per week, and 80 percent went on to secure unsubsidized employment.11

Man standing with his back against the counter in a kitchen with a range stove and microwave.

Chicago Housing Authority residents living in traditional public housing are required to work a minimum of 20 hours per week or engage in activities that will lead to work. Chicago Housing Authority

For residents striving to improve basic skills, Opportunity Chicago’s partnership with CCC offered career bridge programs and certificate, associate’s degree, and general educational development (GED) and English as a second language programs to prepare residents to enter the labor force. The bridge programming helped residents learn the industry-specific vocabulary and skills necessary to be successful in their chosen field. Through an agreement between CHA and CCC, public housing residents could enroll at no cost. A total of 1,403 residents participated in CCC programs. Three additional workforce pathways — WIA, Industry Skills Training, and Contextualized Literacy — had lower enrollment numbers. Nearly 500 residents accessed WIA services, which included universal offerings such as job listings, résumé and interview tips, and career exploration tools; intensive services such as skills evaluation, case management, employment barrier mitigation, and job retention resources; and technical training through CCC and other providers. Although it was later phased out because of lack of participation, Industry Skills Training prepared 345 residents for high-demand fields such as health care, manufacturing, hospitality, information technology, and eco-friendly enterprises.12 Part of what made the Opportunity Chicago initiative a success was the partners’ willingness to reevaluate programs and make changes along the way. Recognizing the learning styles of adults was critical to tailoring programs to meet their needs.13 Opportunity Chicago added contextualized literacy after realizing that previous literacy programs were not having the desired outcomes. Because contextualized literacy began later in Opportunity Chicago’s lifespan (2008), it attracted only modest participation, with 64 residents enrolled.14 Collectively, these workforce pathways contributed to the growth in the city of Chicago’s labor participation rate, which is closely keeping pace with that of the state as a whole, Howard indicated. According to 2012–2016 American Community Survey 5-year estimates, Illinois and the city of Chicago have a 65.6 percent and 66.4 percent labor participation rate, respectively.15

Man kneeling in front of a range stove watching another man demonstrating operation of the stove.
Transitional Jobs programs in Opportunity Chicago offered Chicago Housing Authority residents job training and time-limited, subsidized employment placement. Chicago Housing Authority

Continued Progress

At the end of the Opportunity Chicago initiative, partners were concerned that its positive gains would dissipate. As an MTW housing agency, however, CHA “continued the robustness [of Opportunity Chicago] … to make sure that resident engagement in programming did not decline — and it hasn’t,” Howard emphasized. CHA continues to fund and operate FamilyWorks and CCC.16 Residents enrolled in bridge programs had more interest in earning credits toward a degree than in pursuing noncredit or certificate programs. After Opportunity Chicago concluded, CCC expanded its course offerings to improve career outcomes and earnings potential and motivate participants to pursue a 4-year degree.17 CHA and CCC created the Partners in Education Program, which provides CHA residents with the opportunity to take courses toward a degree or attend professional development classes to prepare for a specific industry or trade at little or no cost. The program covers typical out-of-pocket costs such as tuition, fees, books, and work uniforms.18 In addition, CHA now offers its own TJ programming and maintains an intergovernmental agreement with the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership, the local workforce investment board, to further support residents who use American Job Centers. Although its contract is not programmatic, the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership funds skills training for specific industries such as hospitality, technology, and health care.19

Overcoming Challenges

Critical to Opportunity Chicago’s success was a shared commitment among partners to reach the same goal. Nearly all unsubsidized transitional job placements were retained for 30 days, but long-term job retention was less successful, indicating the need for longer postplacement retention services to monitor and evaluate residents’ reasons for remaining in or leaving employment.20 Case management services in the six workforce pathways were vital to improving residents’ job readiness; however, 37 percent of participants classified as “chronically unemployed” had major challenges concerning substance abuse, mental and physical health, and literacy that required longer interventions than the partners could provide. In addition, younger residents tended to be more educated and skilled than older adults, an age-skills mismatch that further underscored the vital role that case management played in tailoring services to residents’ varied needs and skill sets.21 Opportunity Chicago prioritized engaging with potential employers to ensure that its training programs were keeping pace with demand in the current labor market. Some employers were hesitant to hire CHA residents, which reduced opportunities for employment. Executive-level discussions to establish partnerships with workforce centers and train residents for work in specific industries helped mitigate this stigma. Opportunity Chicago worked to ensure that CHA residents would be viewed the “same as the general service population.”22

Six people seated at round tables listening to an instructor with a big screen on the wall behind him.

Through the Partners in Education Program, Chicago Housing Authority residents can enroll in degree and certificate programs at City Colleges of Chicago at little or no cost. Chicago Housing Authority

Rapid Rehousing and Employment in King County

For more than a decade, Building Changes — a nonprofit organization working to reduce homelessness in Washington state — has been developing and testing programs that link workforce and housing services to better meet the needs of vulnerable households.23 The King County Employment Navigator is one such program that Building Changes funded and implemented from 2013 to 2015 as part of the overarching Rapid Re-Housing for Families (RRHF) Pilot.24 The RRHF Pilot, a joint initiative of city and county agencies and service providers in King County, combined rapid rehousing components (short-term financial assistance and housing-related supports) with workforce services to help about 350 families experiencing homelessness find and maintain housing.25 As the workforce component of the RRHF Pilot, the Navigator program paired RRHF providers with workforce service providers to address barriers to employment and facilitate long-term housing and job stability for participants.26 Building Changes sought to demonstrate that employment and an income were critical to ensuring that families could pay for housing costs once the short-term rapid rehousing supports ended.27

Cross-Sector Team

King County’s Coordinated Entry for All helps anyone within the county who is facing homelessness find stable housing through needs assessments and connections to housing resources.28 As part of the RRHF Pilot, Catholic Community Services — an outreach agency of the Catholic Church of Western Washington that provides shelters, case management, mental health services, and employment services — led coordinated entry assessments for families within 11 shelters.29 Families were referred to RRHF directly from the coordinated entry system.30 To increase participation, very few entry criteria were put in place for income limits and work, criminal, or substance abuse history.31 Families experiencing homelessness faced a number of barriers, and, according to Nick Codd, former senior manager at Building Changes, “people were eager enough to get housed that they were willing to try rapid rehousing.” Coordinated Entry for All helped identify families that needed long-term housing solutions and those willing to accept rapid rehousing assistance.32

A man listening to a woman in a job fair setting.
Opportunity Chicago developed and maintained partnerships with area employers and workforce centers to ensure that Chicago Housing Authority residents were adequately trained to meet job requirements. Chicago Housing Authority

Families who participated in the RRHF Pilot had been living in a homeless shelter, in their cars, or in other situations.33 Many of the families had either income from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or no income at all. About 90 percent of the heads of families were female, more than half were single parents, and their median age at the start of the program was 34. Nearly one-third of program participants had not finished high school or attained a GED — a barrier to employment. In addition to lack of education, participants also faced other barriers such as debt obligations; eviction, domestic abuse, and ex-offender history; physical disabilities; mental health challenges; and lack of employment history.34

Once families accepted rapid rehousing assistance, case managers from five rapid rehousing providers — Catholic Community Services, Neighborhood House, Wellspring Family Services, Solid Ground, and YWCA — referred them to Employment Navigators from three workforce service providers: Neighborhood House Employment and Training Services, YWCA Works, and King County’s Career Connections program from the Department of Community and Human Services.35 These workforce service and housing providers had an existing track record of serving people facing employment and housing barriers. The family, Navigator, and rapid rehousing case manager met to discuss employment resources, plans for increasing income, and goals for self-sufficiency. Based on families’ circumstances, the cross-sector team could also include representatives from homeless shelters or the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, because some participants were receiving TANF benefits. Members of this cross-sector team held monthly “learning circles” to discuss progress, suggest best practices, share data, and determine progressive engagement for clients.36

The Employment Navigators played a vital role in coordinating service delivery among the housing and workforce systems and helping participants find employment, access job training, and explore career paths. During meetings with heads of families, the Navigators worked to understand and mitigate the barriers preventing them from finding and keeping a job. To tailor services, the Navigators paid attention to each family’s unique experience with homelessness and helped them become more informed about available workforce programs and resources. The Navigators also worked to ensure that participants could eventually “self-navigate” the workforce system.37

Retaining Employment and Housing

To find and keep a job, families experiencing homelessness and those at risk need assistance to resolve the most pressing barriers to employment. Through private dollars, Building Changes provided flex funds to families to cover car maintenance, transportation, child care, or interview and work clothes. Flex funds could also be used to pay for employment-related fees, such as a food handler’s card or forklift training, as well as move-in costs and apartment application fees. Participants could not use flex funds to subsidize rent. Seventy percent of heads of families experiencing homelessness received flex funds.38

A woman seated at a table writing in a folder with rows of desktop computers in the background.

Employment navigators from YWCA Works helped reduce participants’ barriers to employment by providing job search assistance and career exploration resources. Gary Matoso

People who received assistance from an Employment Navigator were more likely to acquire permanent housing. After moving to permanent housing, families who had worked with an Employment Navigator did not return to homelessness during the two-year period following their move. Participants earned approximately $12 per hour, typically in entry-level jobs. The urgent need to attain employment meant that very few people (13%) participated in job training. Codd explained that because participants knew that their rental subsidies would eventually end, they eagerly sought employment. Some participants were already employed at the time they enrolled in the program. Of those who participated in the program, 58 percent either retained employment or became employed.39 Families could still receive one-time rental assistance within six months of exiting the RRHF Pilot and maintain contact with Employment Navigators for up to two years.40

Lessons and Ongoing Support

Several lessons emerged from King County’s RRHF Pilot that may apply to other localities developing similar initiatives. Building Changes determined that workforce and housing service providers needed to improve cross-sector communication and information sharing while also avoiding system-specific jargon.41 Under the 2009 Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing Act, all communities must have a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) — an online database with information on families and individuals experiencing homelessness that informs local, state, and federal policymaking.42 Under Washington state’s Employment Security Department, the Workforce Information and Technology Services (WITS) compiles data on employment, income, and occupations for the state’s WorkSource online dashboard.43 Although Building Changes attempted to adapt HMIS to the workforce sector, the effort was unsuccessful. Collecting more data about housing status and earned income at intake and program exit would have provided a more complete picture of participants’ circumstances. Codd emphasized that workforce and housing providers should begin preparing families early for the eventual end of rapid rehousing assistance. Families should also anticipate that an increase in income may make them ineligible for public assistance programs.44

Although the RRHF Pilot and its related Employment Navigator services ended, the city of Seattle, King County, and the Seattle Housing Authority continue to collaborate to fund housing services for families experiencing homelessness.45 In November 2015, the city of Seattle and King County each declared a state of emergency to alert officials about the rise in homelessness in the region and allocated about $7.3 million to fund shelter beds, encampment outreach and cleanup efforts, rapid rehousing, and other services.46 The city also earmarked $60,000 in flex funds after learning how crucial they were in addressing families’ immediate needs.47

Building Changes chose King County Career Connections, Neighborhood House, and YWCA Works as service providers because these organizations had additional funding from the county that could help sustain vital services after the program ended. Codd noted that one way these organizations have continued to serve families experiencing homelessness is through the King County Homeless Employment Program (HEP). Although this project largely focuses on people experiencing homelessness rather than those enrolled in rapid rehousing, it represents an opportunity to sustain vital services.48 As with the Employment Navigator program, the YWCA HEP helps reduce barriers to employment through job search assistance, mentorship, housing resources, and other work-related supports.49

Looking Ahead

The programs in Chicago and King County demonstrated the positive outcomes that can occur by integrating two siloed systems. Howard explained that “[CHA] residents are more than interested and able to participate in job training programs and in the labor market,” but they need the tools to do so. Administrators of future initiatives can learn from the successes and challenges of these programs and their commitment to evaluate progress along the way; taking stock of challenges and making corrections while a program is underway benefits participants much more than waiting until a program ends.50 In King County, the most successful rapid rehousing staff were those who became “vocationalized” by inventing ways to link housing and employment, such as colocating employment services in housing developments and integrating employment status into the housing intake process.51 Identifying strategies to better unify the two systems, such as sharing data, reducing system-specific jargon, and communicating regularly, can improve services for vulnerable families.52 Although these programs have ended, Seattle and Chicago continue to ensure that positive gains are not lost by preserving partnerships with workforce and rapid rehousing providers, maintaining case management services, and continuing to provide job training and educational opportunities for vulnerable households.

  1. Butler Family Fund, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. 2015. "Partnerships for Opening Doors: A summit on integrating employment and housing strategies to prevent and end homelessness," 3.
  2. Building Changes. 2016. "Coordinating Employment and Housing Services: A Strategy to Impact Family Homelessness," 4.
  3. Rhae Parkes, Emily Holt, Kimary Lee, Nik Theodore, and David Cook. 2012. "Opportunity Chicago: 2006-2010 — Improving Access to Employment for Public Housing Residents in Chicago," 2; Opportunity Chicago. 2011. "A Partnership for Change: How Opportunity Chicago Helped Create New Workforce Pathways for Public Housing Residents," 6, 8.
  4. Interview with Mary Howard, 16 May 2018; Parkes et al., 1, 3, 20.
  5. Interview with Mary Howard; Joe Parilla and Brett Theodos. 2010. "Moving "Hard to House" Residents to Work: The Role of Intensive Case Management," Urban Institute, 3.
  6. Interview with Mary Howard; Parkes et al., iii.
  7. FSG. 2013. "Collective Impact Case Study: Opportunity Chicago," 3.
  8. Interview with Mary Howard; Parkes et al., 4, 27.
  9. Interview with Mary Howard.
  10. Parkes et al., 4–6, 14.
  11. Kimary Lee, Nik Theodore, Rhae Parkes, Emily Holt, David Cook, and Mirabai Auer. 2012. "The Promise and Challenge of Transitional Jobs: Opportunity Chicago’s Transitional Jobs Experience," 13.
  12. Parkes et al., 6–8.
  13. Interview with Mary Howard.
  14. Parkes et al., 8.
  15. Interview with Mary Howard; "Selected Economic Characteristics: 2012–2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates," American FactFinder website ( Accessed 5 June 2018.
  16. Interview with Mary Howard.
  17. Parkes et al., 30–1; Interview with Mary Howard.
  18. "Partners in Education Program," Chicago Housing Authority website ( Accessed 5 June 2018.
  19. Interview with Mary Howard.
  20. Parkes et al., 20; Lee et al., 13.
  21. Parkes et al., 25.
  22. Interview with Mary Howard; Parkes et al., 24.
  23. Building Changes 2016, 4–5; Building Changes. 2018. “What We Do.”
  24. Building Changes 2016, 5; Email correspondence with Nick Codd, 22 May 2018.
  25. King County. 2013. “Rapid Re-housing pilot launched to help homeless families,” 12 December press release.
  26. Building Changes 2016, 6; Interview with Nick Codd, 11 May 2018; Email correspondence with Nick Codd, 22 May 2018 and 20 June 2018.
  27. Interview with Nick Codd; Email correspondence with Nick Codd, 20 June 2018.
  28. "Coordinated Entry for All (CEA) Frequently Asked Questions," King County website ( Accessed 14 May 2018.
  29. Interview with Nick Codd; Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing Services of Western Washington. 2016. "2016 Annual Report"; "Shelter and Homeless Services," Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing Services website ( Accessed 15 June 2018.
  30. 30 King County. 2015. "The Rapid Re-housing for Families Pilot: Interim Evaluation Report."
  31. Interview with Nick Codd; Butler Family Fund, 7.
  32. Interview with Nick Codd.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Building Changes 2016, 6–7.
  35. Ibid, 6; Email correspondence with Nick Codd, 20 June 2018.
  36. Interview with Nick Codd; Building Changes 2016, 8, 13.
  37. Building Changes 2016, 6–8; Nick Codd. 2016. "Employment Navigator Model."
  38. Building Changes 2016, 8; Interview with Nick Codd.
  39. Interview with Nick Codd.
  40. King County 2015.
  41. Building Changes 2016, 14.
  42. "HMIS Requirements," HUD Exchange website ( Accessed 8 June 2018; "About King County HMIS," King County website ( Accessed 8 June 2018; HUD Exchange. 2011. "Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH): Proposed Rule for HMIS Requirements," HUD Exchange website ( Accessed 8 June 2018.
  43. "WorkSource System Performance," Washington State Employment Security Department website ( Accessed 8 June 2018.
  44. Building Changes 2016, 9, 16; Interview with Nick Codd.
  45. King County 2015.
  46. City of Seattle Human Services Department. 2016. “Homeless State of Emergency Implementation Plan,” 6–7.
  47. Ibid, 12; Interview with Nick Codd.
  48. Interview with Nick Codd.
  49. "Homeless Employment Program," YWCA Seattle | King | Snohomish website ( Accessed 18 May 2018.
  50. Interview with Mary Howard.
  51. Nick Codd and Debbie Patton. n.d. "Rapid Re-Housing and Employment: Making the Connection," 11, 13; Interview with Nick Codd.
  52. Interview with Mary Howard; Building Changes 2016, 14.


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The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.