Image courtesy of the City of Cleveland Photographic Bureau.
On June 8, the Northeast Ohio VA Health Care System Community Resource and Referral Center and Housing Urban Development Veteran Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) programs co-hosted the second annual Breaking Down Barriers hiring event to address one of the toughest barriers to employment — a period of incarceration or an encounter with the justice system.
The referral center aims to help Veterans and other job seekers transition from incarceration to the workforce, exit or avoid homelessness, and build better lives for themselves and their families.
The referral center connects with Veterans who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, with resources that can help them obtain or stay in permanent housing. Steady employment is the cornerstone of housing stability, and involvement with the justice system can be a lingering barrier to employment.
“A justice-involved background impacts individuals and their ability to secure employment throughout their lives,” said Kristin Tracy, HUD-VASH vocational rehabilitation specialist.
To help justice-involved Veterans secure employment, the Cleveland referral center and HUD-VASH vocational staff reached out to potential community partners, including Cuyahoga Community College Veterans Initiative, Dominion Energy Charitable Foundation, Catholic Charities USA, and Ohio Means Jobs, along with many others, which led to the creation of the Breaking Down Barriers Initiative.
“Community partners were interested in putting together an event that would get to the heart of things — a place where justice-involved job seekers would feel confident and not think, ‘This isn’t for me. I’m not going to do it,’” said Kristin.
One element of the event’s success was its inclusiveness.
“This [event] isn’t just for Veterans, it’s for others with justice-involved backgrounds too,” said Dan Abraham, the community employment coordinator for Cleveland CRRC. “Opening the event to the community at large allowed for more partners.” Attendance by Veterans tripled this year — from 15 to 46 out of 124 attendees.
Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, who is a Veteran, opened this year’s event with a message of encouragement, inspiration, and hope. Following his remarks, Jackson engaged job seekers and community partners in informal conversation. Other speakers included Susan Fuehrer, director of the Northeast Ohio VA Health Care System, who assured Veterans that VA cares and will help meet their needs; and a participant from the first Breaking Down Barriers event, who shared a success story of finding employment. Thirty-two employers hosted booths or tables at the event, and 21 resource partners were on-site to help job seekers learn about housing options, job skills training and other services.
“One of the best parts was when one of my Veterans who had formerly been incarcerated came up to me and said, ‘I didn’t think it was possible to come to an event where I was welcome,’” said Kristin. “The Veteran had two potential interviews after the event and was ecstatic. For me, that’s what it’s all about.”
The Cleveland referral center and the Veterans Justice Outreach program work closely to identify Veterans who are incarcerated and speak with them about VA services and resources for medical needs, employment and housing.
The center, HUD-VASH and Veterans Justice Outreach work collaboratively to prepare Veterans for Breaking Down Barriers, explaining that employers were committed to hiring participants who matched a job’s qualifications regardless of their past involvement with the justice system. Pre-release visits contribute to the success of Breaking Down Barriers and building relationships with incarcerated Veterans is likely to increase the chances that they will stay connected with VA services upon release and avoid homelessness.
Cleveland’s centerand HUD-VASH are seeking to expand the event and to help replicate it in VA medical centers across the country. Having a justice-involved background should not prevent Veterans from obtaining employment and housing. By forming partnerships in the community, like Cleveland center and HUD-VASH did, your community can organize their own Breaking Down Barriers hiring event to help Veterans who are transitioning from incarceration to employment or continue to receive ongoing collateral consequences to their convictions.
Participating in events like Breaking Down Barriers is just one way to support Veterans exiting homelessness —if you or someone you know would like to help put an end to Veteran homelessness, VA offers multiple resources, partnerships and events that can help you get started. You can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Visit the Veterans Justice Outreach website to learn more about VA’s work with justice-involved Veterans.
- Visit VA’s website to learn about housing initiatives and other programs for Veterans exiting homelessness.
- Refer Veterans who are homeless or at imminent risk of becoming homeless to their local VA medical center, where staff are ready to assist, or urge them to call 1-877-4AID-VET (1-877-424-3838).
Kristin Tracy is a respected vocational rehabilitation specialist working with homeless or at risk of homelessness populations in the HUD-VASH program. She is dedicated to serving the employment needs of Veterans with severe mental illness, dual diagnosis, and legal involvement and has expertise in IPS supported employment, customized employment, program management and case management.