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Program gives homeless ‘jump start' at a better life

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By JAMES E. CASTO
For The State Journal

A few months ago, Sara was jobless, homeless and had lost custody of her three young boys. She felt she was at the end of her rope.

Today, Sara — that's not her real name, of course — has a job, her own apartment and is looking forward to enjoying spring break with her boys. The dramatic difference in Sara's life is a result of her participation in Jobs First, a new program offered by the Cabell-Huntington Coalition for the Homeless. 

Jobs First, says Amanda Coleman, the program's team leader, is designed to give participants what might be called a "jump start" at a better life. 

Traditional employment programs for homeless and at-risk individuals generally put them through extensive training before trying to place them in a job. In contrast, Coleman explains, Jobs First "focuses on leaving people where they are and getting them into the workforce as quickly as possible. We then coach them while they're employed." 

This approach, she says, puts them a big step closer to a stable living environment where they can provide for themselves. 

"It's defeating to sit in a program for two or three months and prepare for the job market, and all the while you're living at the Huntington City Mission and you want to get on with your life and be in your own place," Coleman said.

The coalition got Jobs First up and running last August and since then has placed 30 people in jobs, said Bob Hansen, the coalition's executive director. The goal is to involve 100 or more individuals in the program by the end of this fiscal year. 

The program is picking up momentum, Hansen said. 

"We placed nine people in January," he said.

So far the program has placed people in jobs at fast-food restaurants and cleaning services, in retailing, auto repair and telemarketing. Along the way, the program offers participants help in filling out job applications, finding suitable clothing and getting to and from the job.

"We're not just trying to get people into jobs," Coleman said. "We work with them to help them keep their new jobs." 

Sara's story offers a good example, she said.

"When she came to us in September she was homeless, living at the City Mission," Coleman said. "Due to her homelessness, she had lost custody of her three young boys. 

"We were able to place her in a job at a local fast-food restaurant. It was a real challenge for her as she went from not working to working as much as 60 hours a week and riding a bus for 45 minutes to get to and from the restaurant."

Sara checked in regularly with the program, and she managed to get her own apartment. Working with the court, she secured unsupervised visitations with her boys. 

Then one day she came by and announced she had quit her job, Coleman explained. When asked why, Sara said the restaurant had cut her hours.

"As we talked, we learned that they had cut everybody's hours," Coleman said. "Things like that happen, we told her. We urged her to call the restaurant, say she had acted rashly in quitting and really wanted to keep her job. 

"‘You need to keep your job if you're to stay in your apartment and get your boys back,' we said. The next day she came in and told us she had made the call and did get her job back. Now she's looking for a second job to supplement her income. She's gotten her life together — and she couldn't have done it without that job."