Beating Homelessness in Chicago

  • Prosperity
  • 1991

After Tom Owens retired from his successful career as an IT entrepreneur, inspiration from Mother Teresa led him to pour his energy and money into helping poor and homeless people become self-sufficient in his hometown of Chicago. He visited dozens of shelters, halfway houses, addiction groups, and job-training centers, studying what made some effective and others not. After some disappointing false starts he began to bottle lightning in 1995. He established a nonprofit named CARA that successfully mixed several services.

First comes serious assessment of each person’s needs. Then those accepted into the program undergo tough-minded life-skills training—typically four to six months of all-day classes—that builds competence and confidence in individuals who often lack both. Workshop topics include vital practical skills like conflict management, relationship-building, forgiveness, and anger control. Participants are required to start each day by speaking into a microphone to their group, which fosters public-speaking skills and self-esteem. This all grows out of studies showing that employment success is founded not just on economic skills but on psychological and spiritual abilities as well. CARA uses a variety of rituals and repetition to encourage good habits, elevate constructive role models, and reinforce a culture of work and independence.

Next, the organization puts graduates into its powerful job-placement network, which connects them to dozens of area employers who have learned to trust CARA referrals and hire them in substantial numbers. The toughest cases go to work in CARA’s own in-house enterprises (providing building and outdoor maintenance, for instance). Last, there is long-term follow-up that helps graduates hold onto their jobs and progress up the pay and responsibility ladder over time.

Following this system, CARA has placed into permanent employment more than 3,600 individuals who had been snarled in homelessness and other serious problems. The one-year job retention rate for CARA participants is 25 percentage points higher than the national average for entry-level jobs, despite the challenges of this particular population (for instance, the fact that 45 percent arrive with criminal records). In 2014, CARA graduates placed in permanent jobs earned $6.2 million and paid $2 million in taxes. Because they were working rather than drawing on welfare programs or being incarcerated, it is estimated that society saved $6.5 million that would otherwise have been spent managing them. And while 70 percent of the individuals who enter the program come in homeless, at 12 months, nine out of ten are in permanent housing.

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