During a time that saw a record number of homeless families in Massachusetts receive emergency assistance from the state, an innovative jobs program is credited with helping hundreds move out of the shelters for good.
In its second year in operation in western Massachusetts, the Secure Jobs program for homeless families provided job placements for 128 people. A job that pays a living wage is an essential step toward stable housing, according to advocates for ending homelessness.
State Senate President Stan Rosenberg of Amherst praised the program as an “amazing success story.”
" This is a very solid program. It is one that emphasizes prevention and it is always better to prevent the problem because it usually more expensive to solve a problem," Rosenberg said in an interview.
Rosenberg was one of a dozen state legislators who attended an event Friday morning at Holyoke Community College where several program participants told their success stories. Also attending were the mayors of Chicopee, Northampton, North Adams and Pittsfield.
Dessire Rodriguez was in a homeless shelter for eight months with her 10- year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. She entered the jobs program, got licensed as a Certified Nursing Assistant, and got a full- time job providing care to the elderly. She now makes enough to rent an apartment in Springfield.
" It was tough, but we made it," she said.
Rodriguez said when she first applied for assistance from the state she made it clear she wanted help, not a handout.
The Secure Jobs program involves collaboration with community colleges, employment and workforce development specialists, social service agencies, housing specialists, and employers, according to program director Lisa Lapierre.
" We try to meet the clients where they are and help them achieve their goals," said Lapierre. " We try to remove all the barriers such as child care and transportation so they can take the next step and achieve housing stability."
The initiative started as a pilot program in 2013 in the four western Massachusetts counties with $300,000 from the Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation. It expanded to four additional regions of the state last year with a line item in the state budget.
Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, said $2 million is needed in next year’s state budget to keep the program going.
" We need to respond to this crisis in a way that offers lasting solutions," said Schwartz. " We know that having family stability equals having employment and income and that is what this program offers."
The people who were employed through the Secure Jobs program found work in several sectors of the state’s economy with personal care, healthcare, manufacturing, and retail-wholesale -- the top sources of employment, according to a summary of the program participation.
The average hourly wage was $10.46
More than 6,100 families were put into state-funded homeless shelters in Massachusetts last year, the highest number ever.
There were complaints from elected officials in Holyoke and Chicopee about the prolonged use of motels to shelter homeless families.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno recently demanded an end to what he called the “dumping” of homeless families in a couple of city neighborhoods. He said city inspectors found 3-4 families living in a single apartment.
Social service agencies have defended the clustering of homeless families as an efficient way to provide help.