From Homeless to Employed

In a Q&A, the founder of one of today s most effective anti-poverty programs gets down to business


When Chicago businessman Tom Owens retired in 1991, he felt inspired by Mother Teresa to do something to help his community. The Cara Program was the result. One of the premier self-sufficiency training programs in the United States, Cara prepares homeless and impoverished people for long-term careers. The Philanthropy Roundtable asked Mr. Owens about his philanthropic journey, and the issue central to many anti-poverty efforts: “How can I move someone who’s hurting into a job?”

Q: How did you get involved in philanthropy?

Owens: After I retired from my work as an IT entrepreneur, I was too young to stand on the sidelines, and I saw this opportunity among the homeless shelters in Chicago. There were about 80 long-term shelters, halfway houses, addiction treatment centers, and so forth, and they all had their own jobs program. We all agreed that one of the main ingredients for someone to get back to self-sufficiency is to have a job. But from what I saw, the jobs available were not career jobs. Too many weren’t substantial enough for someone long term.

My vision was to tap my friends from business and create a professional job platform that would serve all of these individual shelters and place residents in careers. I started pursuing this vision by calling the shelters in the area to get a better sense of the audience. My mentor at the Chicago Coalition on the Homeless suggested that instead of the broader professional platform, I support a dozen women and secure jobs and apartments for them. I did that and made a lot of mistakes—but I realized that there were indeed people trapped in the system who wanted to change their lives, and if given the right supports would bootstrap their way to success.

Our early job placements didn’t stick, largely because people didn’t change their habits or their peer groups.

Q: Did you have knowledge about homelessness before you started?

Owens: I established a foundation in 1985 with a primary goal of returning individuals and families to self-sufficiency. I knew I cared about the terribly impoverished and the homeless. By 1991 I thought it was really just time to dive in and do something. I drove all around the neighborhood to visit shelters—they must have thought I was crazy. I formed a council of shelter leaders for guidance. At one point I moved the jobs program within Catholic Charities in Chicago. It didn’t prove to be a good growing place for the program, so I moved it out in 1995 and created a 501(c)3. About that time I found the current president, Eric Weinheimer. He is an impressive, smart, and passionate guy. He has all the good things, and it was when we had a full-time smart guy looking at the problem and training staff that the program really took off.

Q: Is it difficult to find job placements?

Owens: When I described what I wanted to do to my business friends, there was a heavy degree of skepticism, which, honestly, I shared, too. Our early placements didn’t stick, largely because our people didn’t change their habits or their peer groups. Their perspective of who they were didn’t change. In those cases where there hadn’t yet been inner change, the little bit of economic success we offered could actually be that participant’s downfall. Once employed, the participant would let his or her guard down. Those were forging times.

Now we heavily screen our applicants for motivation, and their rate of job retention after one year is 20 points above the national average, in spite of all the baggage they carry. The referral agencies realize that when you refer someone to Cara they better be motivated, because it is a tough program. Meanwhile the reputation of our staff has developed among Chicago’s employers. Many big-name companies like Northwestern Memorial Hospital, JP Morgan Chase, and University of Chicago Medicine have been with us for 15 years and keep coming back because the results are good.

Now we heavily screen our applicants for motivation, and their rate of job retention after one year is 20 points above the national average, in spite of all the baggage they carry.

Q: What do the homeless look like today?

Owens: In some ways, our audience is the same as 1991. Chronic homelessness, generational poverty, all the ills you think about are still present. These are the main obstacles our program works through.

In addition, there seem to be a growing number of what I call the “couch homeless.” A “couch homeless” person is typically a single mom living on a relative’s or friend’s sofa with her kids. It is a day-to-day existence. There is a high degree of depression, the belief that there is nothing out there for me, there is no way I’m going to succeed.

The economy has crushed the middle class and converted some to the lower class. Lots of people are making less than sustainable wages. The population of people unemployed, underemployed, depressed, and addicted seems to be growing. And thus there’s a greater need for job creation, pulling people out of these situations.

Q: What are some of the secrets of your program?

Owens: A lot of it has to do with changing their attitude about who they are and what kind of opportunities they have. That’s the key to Cara’s success. The average tenure for students at Cara is four to six months. During that time they go to classes from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every day. A lot of what they do in class is life-transformation sessions. They do workshops on forgiveness, love, conflict management, self-esteem, and interpersonal relations. It is amazing the type of transformation that occurs in a person.

The average age of someone entering our program is 41. They have been through the mill when it comes to programs and nothing has worked. Our program is entirely voluntary, and people come because they want to change. If a person comes into the program and isn’t that interested in changing his or her life, not much can be done. The person needs to be sick of their current circumstances, they have to be in a place where they think, “I have to change.” A lot of people do it for their kids and other persuasive reasons. They also need to see enough success from their peers in the program to reinforce the fact that they can be successful too.

If you say to anyone on the street, “do you want to change?” they will say “of course I want to change.” But the sincerity of the answer from a 41-year-old versus an 18-year-old is remarkably different. If the person has the inner self and heart to put into the program, Cara can empower that person to change.

A lot of it has to do with changing their attitude about who they are.

Q: If you founded Cara today, would you do anything differently?

Owens: The success of the program today rests largely with the staff. They are smart, passionate, and open to changing their tactics. They have done amazing things when it comes to life transformation and have leveraged private philanthropy and social enterprise revenue while limiting government funding. This revenue mix allows the staff to be agile and adjust the program to suit the needs of the people we serve and produce impressive results year after year. I only wish we could have gotten this proficient sooner. It took some time to evolve. The good thing is that now that we have a good system that can be replicated in other cities, maybe it won’t take others as much time to create true impact.

Q: As a donor, how do you know if your dollars are making a difference?

Owens: We look at the rate of job retention after one year. We’re currently at 70 percent, which is 20 points above the national average for all entry-level jobs. I’m proud of this number, as it shows that our participants are not only beating the national average, they are beating it in spite of all the adversity that they face, all of the baggage that accompanies them into the job market.

We’re also looking at how we can support people in the second year of their job, promote educational opportunities, and show people how to progress from a $10 or $15 per hour job to one at $20-25. People have to craft a game plan to get there, and Cara is here to help.

Mentioned on this page