Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
How a nonprofit and a small jewelry company team up to help homeless women get back on their feet.
Three years ago, Patricia Caldwell was laid off from her job on the production floor of a carseat factory in Highland Park, Michigan, and decamped to her mother’s house in Detroit, teenage kids in tow. But the tight quarters quickly became untenable. With her income slowed to a trickle, Caldwell says, “I had to work from ground zero.” The family became homeless.
Those spirals of job loss and homelessness are a common refrain at Coalition on Temporary Shelter (COTS), a hub for women and children in Detroit, where Caldwell and her kids spent five months. Although the city has tens of thousands of vacant properties, it’s still hard for many families to find safe and affordable homes, says Delphia Simmons, a Detroit Revitalization Fellow at COTS.
Climbing out of poverty, Simmons says, is a vicious cycle. “As soon as you get a foothold on one thing,” she says, “it drops.” A steady job is one path out of homelessness, but women stare down many barriers that seem daunting to scale. In Detroit, Simmons says, sky-high car insurance rates and a spotty public transit system make it difficult to find reliable transportation to work. Plus, many of the women at COTS are parents, who may struggle to find and pay for child care.
They also have to contend with deeply entrenched disparities. “Some of the people who come to us are second-generation poor, and haven’t always had a good example of work because maybe their parents were also struggling,” Simmons says. But in order to help families get back on their feet, she adds, “we have to do something more than just house people.”
So it’s crucial for COTS to partner with organizations that understand the employment challenges that homeless women face. “If I send a parent to a job interview and they get hired, but the employer is not the type of employer who understands these other barriers, it’s only a matter of time before they lose their job,” Simmons says.
Workforce training programs for homeless residents have recently cropped up in cities across the country. Seattle, which deemed its homeless crisis an emergency in 2015, piloted a program in which members of the Downtown Seattle Association drive around the city in to recruit “people who appear to be homeless and looking for work,” Next City reported.
A similar program rolled out in Albuquerque in 2015, where the There’s a Better Way initiative offers panhandlers $9 an hour for pitching in towards beautification projects, such as trash pickup or weeding. Participants can dig in to snacks, water, and lunch, and are connected with opportunities to learn about employment, housing, and health resources.
COTS is taking a smaller-scale, long-term approach to connecting homeless women with employment. Now in its third year, the shelter’s Passport to Self-Sufficiency program, run by Simmons, pairs women with mobility coaches who take a holistic look at the family’s well-being, accounting for financial literacy, education, health care, and more.
Local bank branches come by the shelter to help women open up accounts; representatives from Starbucks and the nearby Henry Ford Hospital have dropped in to run mock interviews and give the prospective applicants real-time feedback. Of the parents who are coached, Simmons estimates that at least 70 percent open a bank account. When families stop cashing their checks at liquor stores or storefronts, “we consider that a win,” Simmons says.
The shelter also partners with a few local businesses that offer paid training opportunities, which can turn into full-time employment. Caldwell was one of the first to sign up with Rebel Nell, a company that fashions jewelry out of flecks of graffiti harvested from the ground of the Dequindre Cut bike path, or the paint-heavy walls of The Alley Project. (“We have a strict no-peel policy,” says Julia Rhodes, Rebel Nell’s marketing manager.) The rings, pendants, earrings, and bracelets, which are assembled in a studio space on Grand River, are sold online and stocked in some 40 stores across 16 states.
So far, around 12 women have participated in Rebel Nell’s program, Rhodes says. They come from diverse employment backgrounds—some worked in the health-care industry, others in service or line work at automotive plants. After a two-month trial period, women get their own keys to the studio space and can shape the structure of their 35-hour work week to accommodate family responsibilities. They receive hourly wages, and the company confers with COTS about reinforcing financial literacy lessons. If the Rebel Nell team suggests direct deposit for paychecks, for instance, the shelter’s mobility coaches will help women set it up.
At first, Rebel Nell nudges women towards “getting their legs planted firmly beneath them, building credit, getting more financially stable, [and sorting out the] housing situation,” according to Rhodes. Later, she says, the program invites participants to think bigger. “Where do you see yourself in five, eight, 10 years? Get those wheels turning.”
When Caldwell began at Rebel Nell in December 2013, she was already an avid crafter, sewing, designing t-shirts, and peddling trinket-studded leather cuffs on consignment. She’s since ascended to a managerial role, in which she wears a rotating wardrobe of hats: She’s tasked with quality control, brainstorming design ideas, and shaking up and streamlining the production process. She’d already been shouldering a lot of those duties, she says, but a title bump “helped me step up to know that the responsibility was definitely mine and I had to step up and own it.”
Caldwell will soon be looking for another apartment, she tells me, to buffer her son against gang activity in their current neighborhood in Southwest Detroit. But this time around, she adds, she’s on more solid terrain, and imagines that it will be easier to steady her footing in a new place. “It’s not as horrible a situation as it was before, where I needed assistance to move forward.”