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Harris County Looks to Expand Homeless Payment Program

Commissioner Adrian Garcia has said that his precinct’s pilot program, which paid participants $15 an hour to clean public spaces, was a success and will expand countywide with a $2.1 million budget.

(TNS) — Harris County, Texas, Commissioner Adrian Garcia shared Wednesday, July 13, afternoon that his precinct has been using American Rescue Plan funding to create jobs for Houston's homeless.

The pilot in his precinct — which covers a portion of downtown, a swath to the north including the Near Northside up to Aldine and the southeast quadrant of Harris County including much of Second Ward out to Webster, La Porte and Baytown — paid participants $15 an hour to perform jobs including covering graffiti, pressure washing county facilities and painting. Case managers also connected workers with training and housing opportunities.

County commissioners deemed the program, named Employ2Empower, a success and unanimously approved a countywide expansion of the program with a $2.1 million budget, according to Garcia's office.

Garcia spoke about the program Wednesday afternoon at a White House summit in which officials from around the country discussed ways they had used American Rescue Plan dollars.

When introducing Garcia's panel, White House American Rescue Plan Coordinator Gene Sperling emphasized the need to provide work for the homeless.

"This is something that we've talked about with many people, which is how to address the homelessness with economic opportunity and not just... a housing strategy," Sperling said.

Houston, Harris County, the Coalition for the Homeless in Houston and Harris County and their partners have long focused on what's known as a "housing first" model of fighting homelessness. The rationale goes that the only real solution to homelessness is housing, and that many contributing factors to homelessness, including unemployment, mental illness and addiction, are difficult to address until more basic needs are met.

Since 2011, the group has succeeded in using housing to reduce — by 64 percent — the number of people living either in shelters or on sidewalks, in tents or in other places places not meant for habitation. COVID-related funds have also gone towards this strategy in Houston and Harris County, with $165 million funneling into a housing-first effort called the Community COVID Housing Program.

But Garcia said Employ2Empower aims to provide another way out of homelessness by focusing on employment first.

The pilot began in June of 2021 with $150,000. A nonprofit, Career and Recovery Resources, provided case management and human resource services, and the Harris County Sheriff's Office, where Garcia previously served as sheriff, provided supervision and security. Together, case managers and deputies visited encampments in parks and alongside freeways to recruit workers for the program.

The first day, four people accepted the offer of $15 an hour. Now, roughly 20 people participate in the job force each day.

The program is designed with low barrier to entry in mind — there are no background checks or drug tests, and participants are not penalized for missing days.

The low barrier to entry, Garcia explained, "allows participants to ease back into the workforce. We call it 'exercising their work muscles.'"

Once in the program, participants are provided with breakfast, lunch and resources, such as healthcare services, medication, help with housing applications and connections to job opportunities.

Out of the 79 people who have participated in the program, 47 were assessed for housing, 19 have been housed and 12 are on the waitlist.

"The community helped me stand up again," said Leroy Allen, a participant in the program, in a release. "It didn't give me a handout. It didn't give me food. It gave me a job and that's all I needed."

He added, "All I needed was a chance."

The budget for the Employ2Empower has been updated to reflect the most recent numbers from Commissioner Adrian Garcia's office.

(c)2022 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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