Social Enterprises Provide Valuable Job Training and a Sense of Purpose for Homeless Youth

Two young people training at a bakery.

Life on the streets forces homeless youth to become experts at their own survival, but they often lack the skills necessary to do the very thing that can help them gain stable housing—hold down a job. Case managers at Daybreak, a Family and Youth Services Bureau grantee in Dayton, OH, struggled to provide employment preparation for the runaway and homeless youth they served, and in 2012 came up with a solution—a social enterprise program that employs homeless youth to bake and sell homemade pet treats.

Daybreak started Lindy & Company (now Lindy’s Bakery) to improve young people’s employment outcomes. The three-month bakery jobs help youth develop important “soft skills” such as punctuality and dealing with authority.

“We started a social enterprise program because to truly...stop recidivism of homelessness, we know that [homeless youth] have to have some type of income that's going to be self-sustaining,” said Kathy Hooks, employment initiative director.

Employment offers homeless youth a unique opportunity to grow and heal, says Jim Schorr, the president and chief executive officer of the Social Enterprise Alliance. Work helps young people feel they have a purpose and boosts their self-worth and confidence. “All of the things that we got out of our first job, that were fundamental and shaped who we became, are that much more important to young people who are homeless or at risk,” Schorr says.

[Discover resources for creating employment training programs for opportunity youth.]

Tips for Starting a Social Enterprise for Homeless Youth

1. Invest time in planning.

  • Discover young people’s interests. Ask youth what interests them during their regular programming and pay attention to their favorite activities. When youth woke up at 5 a.m. to bake test batches, that’s how staff knew the youth were dedicated to the bakery, Hooks remarks.
  • Know your local economy. Educate yourself about the business climate before you dive in. Research by Daybreak’s chief executive officer revealed that the pet industry weathered the recession well, proving it a good choice for their enterprise.
  • Choose a business with growth potential. Select an enterprise that can expand over time to provide more jobs. If a business can’t scale up, Schorr says, staff and youth will get frustrated by waiting lists. Even small organizations need a business that has the capacity to grow.
  • Get the right fit. Think carefully about what types of jobs will be good matches for the youth clients. Jobs that don’t require job experience or prior skills are ideal, Schorr says. The enterprise should offer diverse tasks that keep youth engaged and build their skills, Hooks advises.. At Lindy’s Bakery there are more than a dozen things for youth to do including preparing dough, managing commercial equipment, and handling customer service.
  • Capitalize on existing resources. Leverage the expertise of staff and board members to get your enterprise off the ground. Local business owners, like the bakery chef who donated time and space to Daybreak, are also key. Hooks points to universities and small business advisory councils as additional resources. Becoming a member of the Social Enterprise Alliance connects you to an extensive network of experts, Schorr says.
  • Follow child labor laws. Youth are usually limited in the number of hours they can work and when, such as during non-school hours. Make sure jobs comply with local laws, Schorr says.

2. Surround youth with support.

  • Provide mental health services. Succeeding in a traditional work environment can be challenging for young people who have experienced a lot of trauma. Ongoing mental health support helps homeless youth cope and continue working, Schorr notes. Daybreak offers wraparound services including case managers, clinicians, and therapists.
  • Hire employment specialists. Some homeless youth have trouble staying motivated or performing their job duties, Hooks says, and employment specialists give them the coaching and tools they need to thrive. Build relationships with young people so they seek out staff and learn more skills.
  • Offer job prep classes. Teach clients skills they can practice at the social enterprise, Hooks suggests. Class topics that complement employment preparation such as financial literacy, Schorr notes, empower youth to manage the money they earn.

[Learn about programs for homeless youth that combine employment and mental health services.]

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