Young People and Allies Talk Workforce Innovations and Mental Health with DC Council

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November 17, 2022
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This week, three experts on the need for innovative workforce development programs and mental health services for young people experiencing homelessness visited five DC Council offices to urge council members to advocate for much-needed funding in the upcoming budget cycle. Organized by DC Action’s Youth Economic Justice and Housing Coalition, Daja Dorsey, Flo White, and DVontay Hope, representing Sasha Bruce Youthwork’s (SBY) CURB Youth Advisory Board, led the meetings. They were flanked by allies including Sasha Bruce Director of College and Career Services Curry Neal, Healthy Babies Project Executive Director Regine Elie, DC Doors Founder and Director Janethe Peña, LAYC Housing Deputy Director Jessica Yepez Ruffino, Stand Up for Kids DC Volunteer Director Maranda Saling, DC Action Senior Policy Analyst Rachel White, and DC Action Chief of Staff Mat Hanson.

Vital Service Providers Need Funding to Pay Staff Livable Wages

Advocates hammered home the serious need to increase funding (and make it recurring) for homeless services providers so they can pay staff a living wage and reduce turnover. More sustainable staffing enables workers to build and sustain relationships with young people, which helps young people achieve stable housing and employment much faster.

“We start off with staff we get comfortable with. A lot end up leaving because they’re not being paid well,” explained Da’Vontay Hope. “They find other jobs because their programs don’t have enough money to pay them. The needs of youth reach beyond regular hours of 9-5. I know there are emergency services, but I’m not as comfortable calling people I don’t know. I need to have the same people on my team to understand my situation.”

“Everyone has heard about the great resignation. The challenge of retention of staff, aside from normal turnover, has been amplified,” said Yepez Ruffino. “We’ve been finding a lot of staff are leaving for jobs with higher pay. It’s hard to compete as a nonprofit with government job openings when the salary difference is thousands of dollars. Still, we want to give our youth the most consistency with staff to help them build rapport and healthy working relationships.”

Regine Ellie reinforced the argument. “We need more consistency in where our funding comes from to elevate the salaries of our staff. If staff is being paid through a Department of Human Services contract, that bonus or cost of living adjustment needs to continually come from the same agency. Otherwise providers have to find money elsewhere. We need both an increase in funding and consistency in funding, including an increase to reflect 9% inflation. When you’re working with pregnant and parenting youth, you’re impacting two generations. The dollars need to reflect that investment.”

Including money for inflation and bonuses in government contracts is an important performance oversight issue, explained Councilmember Brianne Nadeau, who encouraged advocates to ask for these dollars in the budget oversight hearings that begin in January 2023.

Expanding Workforce Opportunities and Career Paths

As providers struggle to recruit staff, Hope suggested a potential pipeline for program staff–people like him. “You need more people who have lived experience, instead of coming straight out of a book mentality. People who’ve been in the situation and overcome it can work with youth and providers to make them more comfortable, he explained.

Flo White agreed: “I was a client of SBY and now I’m currently employed there. DC is resource rich and connectivity poor. When you have lived experience, you’ve usually been through multiple programs—workforce development, housing, shelter. I’ve touched all these programs so I can tell you about them. SBY’s hiring of young people with lived experience has given me opportunities. I’m making a living wage and have the flexibility to pursue what I want to do in life.”

Career paths such as youth development are just one example of the expansive approach to workforce development that the group recommended. “Programs need to be innovative with what they offer,” said White. “The interests of youth are changing. Entrepreneurship is big, and social media, graphic design, video production, and engineering. There are different lanes youth are trying to tap into outside of HVAC and culinary and things we often see in workforce programs.”

Dorsey aspires to be a lawyer, currently studying for the LSAT. “I need someone who can direct me on the right path. My last two years of college I was homeless. With help of SBY, I finally got my own apartment, but I don’t have the resources to find the help I need preparing for law school because law is not one of the standard fields in workforce development programs.”

“We have workforce programs for in-demand industries and career pathways, yet I hear from younger folks ‘that’s cool, but that’s not what I want to do,’” said Marcia Huff, advisor to the Labor and Workforce Committee in Councilmember Silverman’s office. “We have federal funding for people to get training in careers with high growth opportunities, but we need to make sure people have pathways to careers they want. We need to do both. The demand is there.”

Mental Health Services Are As Essential as Basic Needs

While tending to real needs such as housing and employment is essential, it’s equally important for young people to take care of their mental health. Given the difficult circumstances that typically lead to homelessness and unemployment, accessible, reliable, high-quality, and culturally competent mental health services are necessary and are also dramatically underfunded.

Councilmembers and their staff members supported increased funding for mental health services. The challenge they agreed on is facilitating the coordination of funding and implementation among agencies. DC’s Department of Behavioral Health (DBH) is interested in supporting a mobile mental health unit that provides regular care for individuals working with service providers across the District. But DBH lacks dedicated funding for such a program. The Youth Economic Justice and Housing Coalition is asking other agencies to work together to reallocate funds for mental health services because strong mental health impacts so many different areas of life in the community.

“Mental health is a huge need in the District, and we need to put money in the pockets of providers to offer mental health services. People can meet with a therapist they can talk to while doing workforce development. That would help with youth’s longevity in these programs,” explained White.

Councilmember SIlverman expressed her admiration and appreciation for the young people leading the conversation and encouraged them to keep at it. “Your stories are the most powerful. You’ve got to leverage your voice. We’ve all had different struggles, but you’ve had ones that are incredible. You’re going to be able to tell it a lot better than I am. I might have access to the funding but you’re the persuasive speakers. Believe in the power of your stories.”