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‘This is not the end’: City pilot program provides work experience for unhoused residents

Steffz Warren, 61, clears dry brush at Willow Springs Park as part of the city’s PATH program. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

For more than a decade, Steffz Warren has had an unstable living situation—bouncing from shared housing to shelter to shelter to shelter.

Warren, 61, a long-time Long Beach resident, found herself without a home after being terminated from her government job of 17 years because of another employee who she described as a bully. Over the years, she has worked multiple jobs but her ever-changing circumstances, along with personal tragedies, have made maintaining a job difficult.

“You never know what someone is going through,” Warren said. “I don’t believe in saying ‘homeless’ because the general consensus is that you’re lazy, you’re nasty, you don’t work, you eat out of trash cans—there are a lot of people out there that are functioning. They’re not what society perceives ‘homeless’ to be.”

In fall 2019, Pacific Gateway was awarded $300,000 from the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services to develop an employment program to assist those, like Warren, who find themselves unhoused and in need of assistance to get back on track. Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the subsequent pilot program, dubbed Pathways Advancing to City Employment, or PATH, commenced this summer.

The pilot was designed to serve 30 people in need: 15 to work with city staff and 15 to be placed with private companies or nonprofits. The level of each participant’s need determines which group they are placed.

“Perhaps the greatest challenge for individuals who have been unhoused for some time or are long-term unemployed is the opportunity to re-enter the workforce and build up job skills and even basic experience of the work environment,” said Erick Serrato, assistant executive director of Pacific Gateway. “This program takes a dignity-first approach.”

The program is meant to provide employment skills to participants and connect them to job opportunities with the city or in the general job market. About a dozen spots still available in the pilot are expected to be filled by Oct. 31, according to a city memo.

Blanca Diaz, left, Willow Springs Park manager with the Long Beach Office of Sustainability, explains to Steffz, a PATH program participant, which vegetation to remove. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Each participant will work an average of 310 hours, earning $15 per hour, for a total of $4,650. In addition to providing participants with wages, the program supports transportation and food costs, insurance, supportive services, staff supervision, tools and materials, case managers and job development staff, Serrato noted.

Warren was referred to the program by a staff member of the Long Beach Multi-Service Center. She was accepted into the pilot and has been working with her cohort and city staff at Willow Springs Park near Signal Hill, maintaining the wetlands.

“I’m being active. I’m doing something that’s productive,” Warren said. “This work may not be my background but sometimes it’s OK to step out of your comfort zone, see other things.”

While the program does not pay Warren enough to afford a stable living situation, she said it has solidified her determination to move forward and improve her situation.

The pilot is set to end Dec. 31, at which point Pacific Gateway staff will study the program’s effectiveness to determine whether it is sustainable.

“The ultimate indicators are retention: Were the individuals able to complete the work hours despite their challenges and why?” Serrato said. “And placement: After the program, are the participants work-ready and able to transition to other employment?”

If the pilot proves successful, Serrato said the expanded program would include additional worksites, such as Sunnyside Cemetery and Long Beach Animal Care Services. With additional sites, participants could be placed where the work experience would be most meaningful and gratifying, personalizing the program.

Once the pilot program is over, Warren said she hopes to enter the nonprofit sector to assist those in need. She said she is most passionate about feeding the hungry, seniors, literacy and, as a self-described Air Force brat, veterans.

“I really want to be involved in those types of things,” Warren said. “I want to continue to be able to let people see that this is not the end. Never give up and always be willing to try something new.”

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