The first cohort: Building skills to help others in need
Adrian Burris has experienced homelessness and struggled with addiction, working low-paying jobs that enabled him to just barely get by. Today, he is the Director of Operations for 4D Recovery, a nonprofit that provides recovery support services to teens and young adults.
On a crisp January morning at Portland Community College’s Hillsboro center, coffee and donuts are spread out on a desk in one of the classrooms, welcoming the first cohort of Washington County’s new housing careers pilot program. Adrian introduces himself to the class by sharing his own journey from houselessness and substance abuse to having a stable home and employment.
As an ice-breaker, he asks students – all of whom have also dealt with homelessness or extreme housing insecurity, and who are referred to by their first name below – what they would like to learn from the training.
“I’d like to learn more about the housing side of things,” Fawn explains. “I’ve worked in mental health for eleven years but being without permanent housing for like two years has just [given me] a different perspective.” Yolanda also feels that her own past with addiction and homelessness has uniquely prepared her to support others going through similar challenges: “We know how it feels and I’ve been through it.”
Colbert has already been trying to help people on his own and working with a service provider organization feels like the next logical step in his path. “I consider this like a super career changer. Right now I can’t think of doing no other job than this.”
The power of lived experience
As criminal justice system reform activist Glenn E. Martin once said, “those closest to the problem are closest to the solution.” That’s the ethos behind this new county program, which aims to leverage the knowledge and empathy of people who have experienced homelessness or housing instability to help others in the same situation, by preparing them for careers in the housing services field in Washington County.
The program is responding to a critical shortage of workers in the social services field. Recruitment is specifically targeting people who identify as Black, Indigenous or a person of color or LGTBQIA+, with the goal of a workforce that better represents the diversity of people served in the housing system.
Participants complete training first, followed by a 500-hour internship with a housing services provider in the county. They are paid $17 an hour for both the training and the internship. The program is funded by Metro’s supportive housing services fund.
“Washington County has spent the last two years dramatically increasing our housing and shelter capacity. With that new capacity comes career opportunities and we know individuals with lived experience are a tremendous asset to our housing programs,” said Jes Larson, Washington County Housing Services Assistant Director. “Programs like our housing careers pilot offer opportunities to individuals who have done the hard work to achieve housing stability and are now looking to make a difference for others. We couldn’t be prouder of this new pilot program and its participants.”
The county looked to regional workforce development agency, Worksystems, to build out the structure of the program. “Individuals who have lived experience with housing instability, or anything really – substance use disorder, maybe being justice system impacted – have firsthand experience with that system,” Worksystems senior project manager Daryl Lambert explained.
That means that those people may be “better able to connect with somebody who has that experience and support them in navigating through those challenges,” he said. The concept of the program is to “meet folks where they're at and support them into careers where they are leveraging their own lived experience in supporting folks in navigating similar challenges.”
Worksystems partnered with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization to provide career coaching and participant support; making sure interns have everything they need to be successful in their placements, including stable housing. IRCO’s role providing housing services case management means they can directly help participants find permanent housing and rent assistance if-needed. IRCO also handles recruitment, screening potential program participants for work readiness and ensuring the program is a good fit for their goals.
PDX Metro Works at Portland Community Collage acts as a liaison to the host organizations, helping them identify where an intern can support their work, creating job descriptions, and troubleshooting issues that may arise during the internship.
Open Door: a haven in Hillsboro
Washington County-based nonprofit Open Door Housingworks designs and runs the trainings, bringing in peer mentors and other presenters to cover topics ranging from working with people struggling with substance abuse to conflict de-escalation, to workplace etiquette.
Open Door has served Washington County communities since 1984. The organization’s early work centered on helping homeowners facing foreclosure, and eventually evolved to include an on-site access center, which provides services like showers and food for people experiencing homelessness in the area, along with space to hang out.
Their homelessness programming expanded with the availability of Metro’s SHS funding: they now run several shelters, a transitional housing pod village on-site, and offer encampment outreach and case management to connect people with housing and rent assistance.
Like Adrian of 4D Recovery, shelter services program manager John MacPhereson was drawn to this work by his own experiences. “I've always really wanted to help people. I have come from a really bad background and have been through a lot of stuff myself, including a stint in being unhoused when I was a child.”
Addressing homelessness in Washington County comes with a different set of challenges than the region’s more urban areas, like nearby Portland. As John explained, people living in tents or other outdoor spaces are often less visible due to the rural nature of many parts of the county. “You have different encampments that that are just off the beaten path in this area,” he said. “It’s much harder to hide in an urban area where you’re surrounded by buildings and those buildings are typically locked.”
This means outreach to secluded encampments is an important part of the work. The program is designed to train interns to help with this type of outreach, as well as other service areas like housing navigation case management and staffing shelters.
Employment training and opportunities play an important role in the bigger picture of how the supportive housing services fund works to address homelessness. The intention of the program is to “really trying to look at this in a holistic way,” John explained, “where we get people from an encampment into shelter, from shelter into housing, and then from housing into the workforce so that they can eventually stop receiving the assistance and start doing it themselves.”
“I’m starting to get into the concept of helping people”
Originally from Alaska, Dana moved to Portland with his husband about 12 years ago, where the couple rented an apartment downtown on Burnside. Portland’s more progressive cultural environment was a relief: “Growing up in Alaska, it was really hard because I had to hide who I was and my identity and everything,” he said. “It was just, you know, really scary, really. And when I came down here, I didn't feel like, you know, that was necessary. That was a big relief. I didn't have to worry about, you know, what people are going to do or say if they find out I’m gay.”
The couple later moved to Raleigh Hills, and a series of events – including his husband passing away – left Dana without a home for about two years. After living in a motel shelter and then briefly on the street, his case manager helped him get a housing voucher and he found an apartment in Hillsboro. During this time Dana was a client at Open Door, where he regularly visited the access center to connect with a community of houseless people in the area who gather there.
After completing the three-week training, Dana was placed at Open Door’s pod village transitional housing for his internship. Though this is his first experience in social services, he regularly dealt with drug overdoses and other situations where he had to assist someone in crisis when he worked as an overnight manager of a McDonald’s – a job he held for over a decade. This continued into his time at the shelter, where he tried to help other guests when he could.
Two months into his internship, Dana explained that he still feels more like one of the clients than an employee. His lived experience means he’s able to draw on existing relationships with some of the residents to connect with and better support them. For example, he’s able to connect with a resident with schizophrenia who he is friendly with after about a year staying in the same shelter in a way other staff aren’t.
He still isn’t sure if he’ll pursue a career as a case manager, but the work feels good. “I'm starting to get into the concept of helping people,” he said, “and it does make you feel better, you know, about your situation or about, you know, what you're doing in the world.”
Seven months after its launch, the program is preparing to welcome its third cohort of interns. Each cohort has been a learning experience for the program’s facilitators, who are learning how to better screen potential participants, manage challenges that arise during the internship placement, and make it a positive and enriching experience for both interns and employers. This means recognizing that the social services field is not a good fit for everyone with lived experience.
John at Open Door explained, “What we find is that some people are going to be extremely successful. They're going to use everything that they've gone through as a way to give back to the community and try and help more people like them.” However, this isn’t always the case. “You're going to find that some people are just not suited for this type of work,” John said, “You have your own traumas and your own issues in life, and sometimes you can't get over those or easily jump those hurdles.”
Recognizing that dynamic requires a tailored approach that takes the needs of each individual into consideration. “We are really hoping to be very informed in the way that we deliver our training and the way that we deliver our placements so that the people that are involved are feeling safe and healthy and able to complete their job placements and not just obligated,” said Leah, a customer outreach liaison at PDX Metro Works.
Ultimately, even if an intern chooses not to continue in the social services field, the work experience gained will be helpful for seeking other employment opportunities. “It would be considered a success,” said John, “if they were able to get a job somewhere else because of the work that we did with them, even if it's not in this field.”
In addition to the first three cohorts, Washington County and its partners aim to serve an additional 45 individuals in the 2023-24 program year.