Off the streets, back to work

Wed, Nov 28, 2012, 00:00

An organisation in Cork is combating homelessness by helping people find work

Often, when the issue of homelessness is discussed, providing a physical building is seen as the obvious solution. With an abundance of empty housing stock in the country, there is an argument that a swift act of legislation could take everyone off the streets, give them a two up two down somewhere, et voilà, their lives would be transformed. The assumption is that being without a home is the main reason a person is homeless, when often, there are many contributing factors: leaving school early; an abusive family; addiction; illness; and changes in work environments. A person who is homeless requires many different types of support to help stabilise their lives.

A recent report called Working It Out, published by the Cork Simon Community, looked at some of the barriers facing homeless persons who want to re-enter the workforce. It showed that 65 per cent of respondents had left school early, and a similar percentage believed that an employer would not hire someone who had been homeless. A significant number of men who engaged with Cork Simon had previously worked in the construction industry (36 per cent), with 59 per cent of respondents saying they lacked the confidence to look for or return to work.

One encouraging element of the report was the evidence that, with the right kind of support, people could get their lives back on track. Last year, Cork Simon helped homeless persons secure 26 job positions, mainly part-time work in catering or cleaning. The agency liaised with employers, and helped with interviews, CVs and online applications – 30 per cent of respondents had never used a computer.

One employer who works with the homeless is Ingrid Homich, human-resources manager at the Cork International Airport Hotel. Ten per cent of staff at the hotel have been referred through Cork Simon, although their backgrounds remain confidential. Homich says that at first, she was reluctant to take on employees from Cork Simon.

“There is a kind of bad perception of people who are homeless and it is to do with drugs and alcohol,” she says. “I thought that if a person is homeless that it is their fault. Now I see there are so many different situations people can get into and it is often not their fault. Often, all people need to be given is a chance.”

Many of these employees will spend time with the hotel, get a good reference, and then be able to move on to other employment. “We don’t specify who was previously homeless working here and if they don’t work out, we treat them the same as everyone else,” Homich says. “We sometimes help fill a gap in their CV and they leave with a good reference. But also important is that we help give them belief in themselves. Some of them can be very fragile emotionally and we see that, after working for a period of time, that can change.”

This observation ties in with what Cork Simon found in its survey: the longer a person remains unemployed, the harder they find it to get back to work.

One 28-year-old female who has engaged with Cork Simon services says she was helped back into training and employment following a period when she was homeless. “My circumstances changed quickly. I was out of a job and eventually my place went and having moved from couch to couch, I ended up with Cork Simon. They were very kind and I started doing some courses,” she says.

When she met other homeless persons in emergency housing, she realised that many factors can contribute to a change in living circumstances. “I wasn’t aware of the diversity of situations. Some people I met had misplaced passports or had just fallen on tough times. Sometimes, when you tell employers about your background, they don’t make that distinction and they imagine you are sitting on the side of the street drinking all day.”

She has now been working for eight months in the hospitality sector and, while she says her employer may not be aware of her background, she is not ashamed to tell colleagues when they ask. “I’m proud of where I have come from and where I am now,” she says.

Another person who returned to training and education through the help of Cork Simon is 39-year-old Julien. He moved back to Cork in 2011, having lived in Jersey for close to a decade, where he worked as a coffee roaster. Some friends accommodated him initially on his return, but he moved to emergency accommodation with Cork Simon.

The agency also assisted him in accessing social welfare. “I left Ireland for family reasons and so when I returned I knew very few people,” Julien says. “Cork Simon literally gave me everything from socks on my feet to telling me about courses I could do.”

Night courses

Julien was assisted in getting an apartment and he has enrolled in a FÁS course in business management and administration during the day, and a start your own business course at night. He says he wanted to be upfront with other students about his recent past. “I told the truth. Everyone on the course is looking to be employed or start his or her own business. Talking about being homeless opened the class right up and there is such a bond because of that.”

Julien hopes to launch a DIY-related business next year, once his courses are completed. “I didn’t have an addiction but depression is something I suffer from. What these courses give me is the confidence to believe I can do it,” he says.

Another course participant describes how doing a parenting course through Cork Simon has given her new confidence. “My child is in care because of my drinking and I now see my child once a month . . . In the course, they told me I was entitled to more access, and I got an extra hour a month with my child, which is great. I left school when I was 15 as I had poor concentration. The teacher would be telling me things and I’d go off into a world of my own. I’m now back learning maths and English one-to-one, and it is also giving me confidence.”

As with many frontline services, funding for the project is now an issue. “We are very worried these days because the level of State funding has declined quite substantially in recent years,” says Cork Simon’s chief executive Dermot Kavanagh. “It is hard to be optimistic.

“There are stereotypical views of homelessness that circulate in society. I hope we are breaking them down. What our work and our report show is that persons who are homeless are well motivated to take up employment and get their lives back on track. We just need to convince society of that fact sometimes.”

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