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Q&A: Kristin Ferguson on Supporting Young People as They Learn to Support Themselves

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Kristin Ferguson

To survive on the streets, homeless young people often make money in informal ways, whether legal, like selling recycled and self-made items, or potentially illegal, like panhandling or drug dealing. These young people may have limited “job skills,” as traditionally defined. In fact, they might not ever have had formal employment. Many of them have had contact with the criminal justice system, something potential employers might frown upon. As a result, they may be difficult to employ in mainstream jobs once they get off the street.

That un-employability is a problem, because a substantial body of research has found that finding and keeping a steady job is an important step toward exiting homelessness.

Kristin Ferguson, a researcher at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, studies how to get formerly homeless young people employed in the formal economy. They key, she says, is to figure out how best to provide a “triangle” of clinical, case management, and employment support services.

We talked to Ferguson about her studies of supported employment, an evidence-based practice that involves collaboration between vocation, clinical, and mental health case management staff in services for homeless youth.

NCFY: What are some examples of what supported employment looks like in practice?

FERGUSON: Some agencies run businesses, social enterprises where the nonprofit has an agency-run business, a for-profit arm. This gives young people an opportunity to learn a trade in an industry. For example, DeLancey Street is a moving and landscaping company in San Francisco that hires homeless young people. In Los Angeles, Homeboy Industries employs former gang-involved young people, who have often experienced homelessness, in baking, silk-screening, landscaping and other trades.

NCFY: Why is supported employment an effective practice?

FERGUSON: In my data collection in LA, people told me they were so glad the program is here. They were designing apparel using Photoshop, and then embroidering and silk-screening creative designs onto hats and shirts to sell. Youth said without this program they’d be out on the streets, using drugs, or even dead.

While youth work, the clinician is in the room, and may be talking to them about anger management while they are putting together beads. Integrating clinical and employment is a hook—saying, “Come into my agency and get clinical therapy,” may not be too popular, but, “Come into my agency and make clothing and you can keep the proceeds” creates better buy-in for youth because making money to survive is their goal on the streets, and is needed to get off the streets.

Once youth are involved in an economically minded group, course, training, or business, the clinical services become more palatable to them, and they are more open to other services. They understand that if they are angry, or lashing out, it hurts their business process, and if they are high all the time, they are not going to be very productive. With the goal of making money, they themselves will begin to recognize things they may want to change. Oftentimes, clinicians use motivational interviewing—a therapy that builds on clients’ desire to change for themselves—as part of supported employment services with youth.

NCFY: What are some challenges in implementing supported employment and how do you address them?

FERGUSON: Oftentimes in this age of funding shortages, we might have a clinician doing both case management and employment work. I would love for youth workers to understand and appreciate the benefits of integrating the different types of supports, but I know there can be difficulty implementing this integration in practice. There are creative solutions I’ve seen, such as using interns and partnering with social workers interested in implementing evidence-based practice.

Have a staff person with a dedicated role in the community making relationships with employment leads. Working with employers willing and able to employ homeless young people contributes to the ability to keep young people off the streets longer term. Reach out to universities and faculties who want to do intervention research and work with you to show how it can work. In my experience doing this in the last 10 years or so, it’s not a huge financial burden to agencies – do what you’ve been doing all along, just be coordinated and open to observation and suggestion.

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