When Antonio Puryear lost his job in Washington, D.C.–and then, shortly thereafter, his apartment–he and his two daughters were temporarily forced to move from couch to couch. “We moved in with my dad, just trying to find a way,” he says. In the same situation, many people eventually end up living in a shelter. But Puryear became part of a program that offered an unusual route to simultaneously get new housing and a new job–working at a large apartment complex.
It’s common for apartment complexes to offer discounted rent, or free rent, to property managers and other staff. In 2014, Chris Finlay, managing partner of Middleburg Real Estate Partners, a D.C.-area real estate company, saw an opportunity to connect these jobs with people who were struggling with homelessness. Finlay had read an article about the number of people who are homeless because of job loss or other temporary circumstances. He realized that his preconceptions about homelessness, shaped by the chronically homeless people he saw living outside, were wrong.
“The majority of homeless are people that we never really see because they are trying to work, they’re getting day labor,” he says. “They’re living out of their cars. They’re not panhandling and living under the bridge . . . These are all people that were employed, had good job histories. There was just really no issue that would preclude them from working other than they didn’t have an address.”
Finlay decided to test the idea of hiring homeless candidates for positions in some of his own properties and partnered with local nonprofits to find those candidates. At each of his properties, around five and eight people work on-site; typically, there’s an opportunity to hire one or two people who are homeless per property. When the experiment worked, Finlay decided to launch a nonprofit, Shelters to Shutters, to connect other property companies with candidates in other cities.
Many business owners were skeptical about hiring someone who is homeless, and shared Finlay’s own original stereotypes about the prevalence of mental illness and drug abuse (of the half million Americans that are homeless on any given night, an estimated 20% to 25% have a severe mental illness and around 17% chronically abuse substances; most do not). But the organization’s statistics help make the case, Finlay says. The turnover rate for entry-level employees in the industry is around 50%. For the formerly homeless people hired through Shelters to Shutters–who may feel more loyalty to the job because of their circumstances–the retention rate is more than 87%.
Hiring fairs, which the organization hosts in key cities with property companies, are also helping persuade more companies to participate. “You combine hiring managers with these candidates and it really breaks down so many stigmas and barriers,” Finlay says. “All of a sudden, the things that we’ve been telling them, they’re like, oh, now I get it.”
Finlay argues that government programs focus more on chronic homelessness, and his organization is attempting to help fill a gap for those who are situationally homeless–people who, like most Americans, don’t have enough money in their savings account to cover even a $400 emergency, and who might not be able to pay rent if they have an unexpected medical bill, or who might lose their job if they can’t afford to repair their car.
The combination of cheap housing and a job, along with training for advancement, is unique. Most people hired through the program get a steep discount on rent from their employers, around 77% off, while a small percentage get free rent. “I think you have to put people in a position to become economically self-sufficient,” he says.
To date, it’s a relatively small program. The organization currently works in 15 cities, from Houston to Seattle, but has placed individuals in only 50 properties. In San Francisco, where Shelters to Shutters soon plans to pilot a program with 20 people, there are around 7,000 homeless people now. Ultimately, the organization believes that it can place several hundred people in jobs and housing every year–a fraction of the total people who are currently homeless in the city. Still, for those who can participate, the program seems to work. Ninety-three percent of people who have been hired through Shelters to Shutters still have a job.