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Job-training program helps homeless find work

Pine Street, hopeFound collaboration that trains clients and finds them jobs draws praise from employers and the employed

Lorraine Carrington sews lampshades and pillows for the Cambridge home décor business 2b design, and will soon be hired.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Lorraine Carrington sews lampshades and pillows for the Cambridge home décor business 2b design, and will soon be hired.

Finding a job in this anemic economy can be challenging for many people, but for Lorraine Carrington — who was homeless, battling addiction, and had just finished a six-month jail term last spring — the hurdles were even higher.

Carrington, 46, a former certified nursing assistant, knew her assault and battery conviction would make it difficult to get work, but with the help of Pine Street Inn, Carrington last month landed a job sewing lampshades and pillows for the Cambridge home décor business 2b design. Her new position started as a training program, with Pine Street paying her a $50-a-week stipend for the first few weeks, but the owner soon plans to hire Carrington as a part-time employee.

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“I’ve been given another chance at my life,” said Carrington, who has started looking for housing and hopes having a recent job on her resume will pave the way for her to one day return to the health care industry. “They can see that my life has been turned around.”

Carrington is the beneficiary of an employment partnership created a year ago when Pine Street Inn merged with another Boston homeless services agency, hopeFound. Before the two groups aligned, Pine Street offered job training, but didn’t have the staff to assist clients in landing a position. For hopeFound, the issue was flipped — its Impact Employment Services program was designed to put people in jobs but didn’t offer any training. Now, the agency can fill job orders from restaurants and hospitals with graduates of its food service, building maintenance, and housekeeping training programs, as well as place skilled workers individually.

Robert Burgo, who discovered a knack for painting, worked at the YMCA in Brighton.

WENDY MAEDA/GLOBE STAFF

Robert Burgo, who discovered a knack for painting, worked at the YMCA in Brighton.

In 2012, the combined organization, which operates under the Pine Street name, helped 250 people find jobs, almost half of those looking for work through the organizations — at an average wage of $11.56 an hour. The year before, Impact placed just 35 percent of its job seekers. By joining forces, Pine Street leaders say, the programs have a better chance of finding housing for the homeless and putting them back in the labor force.

“All the pieces of the social fabric that held their lives together have become unraveled. And a job and housing is often the first step in them knitting it back together,” said Lyndia Downie, president of Pine Street Inn. “The investment in getting them back in the workforce pays off over the long term because they do become taxpayers, they do require less government support down the road.”

For the homeless, finding a job is not as simple as scrolling through job listings online or scheduling an interview with an employment counselor. Many have major barriers to overcome, from the lack of a phone or interview clothes to gaps in work history to disabilities and criminal records.

They’re also often at the mercy of a shelter’s rhythm, where meals are served at precise hours, beds for the night are given out at a certain time, and the line to use a washing machine can be long.

Impact Employment Services counselors regularly visit the four Pine Street shelters, as well as a city-run facility in the South End. They also offer computer training and one-on-one assistance with online applications at Impact’s Chinatown office.

Counselors serve as case managers, advising job seekers to get a haircut and alarm clock, showing them how to create a budget or get an ID, and providing them with MBTA passes. They connect clients with classes to strengthen their English or get a GED, and coach them on how to respond when interviewers ask about their backgrounds.

“Every client is a mini project,” said counselor Kathleen Pena.

That means the 192 employers that hired Pine Street workers last year are getting prescreened candidates with a built-in support system, said Impact director Wendy Lauser. Employment counselors keep tabs on the workers for at least six months after they are hired, monitoring wages, housing, mental health, and other factors that can determine success or failure.

“Homelessness is not a category which gets a lot of sympathy,” Lauser said. “There’s a lot of judgment attached: ‘They’re lazy. They want to be homeless.’ ”

Robert Burgo, 44, spent two years at Norfolk County House of Correction after being convicted of drug dealing – his ninth drug-related offense. Upon his release in the summer of 2011, Burgo moved into a shelter for recovering addicts on Long Island in Boston Harbor and started looking for work as a dishwasher or prep cook. It wasn’t until he went through Pine Street’s building maintenance training program last summer that he discovered a knack for painting and landed a job with the YMCA of Greater Boston.

Now Burgo is getting ready to move into a Dorchester apartment, with the help of a voucher from the nonprofit Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership. He is also planning to get off MassHealth — the state’s health insurance plan for low-income residents — and sign up for coverage through his job.

Without Pine Street’s help, he said, “I’d probably be locked up again.”

Joseph Barry, head of maintenance for the YMCA, said Burgo is an organized, dependable self-starter. Barry knows about Burgo’s past, but he has come to trust Pine Street’s program, which has sent about a dozen workers to the Y over the years.

“A lot of them have a background in construction or technical ability,” said Barry. “At Pine Street, they learn how to apply for a job, punch a time clock, communicate, call in sick — some of the things that they’ve lost along the way.”

Pine Street has also relaunched a program to find jobs for clients with mental health issues, brain injuries, or other disabilities. For instance, it might arrange for someone who has an aversion to loud noises to tour a job site or shadow an employee to determine whether a potential work environment would be feasible. When someone is in a job they don’t like, they tend to quit and have to start over again, Lauser said, keeping them from breaking out of poverty.

But employment does more than give people money, she said. It allows them to start reintegrating into society. They open bank accounts, get credit cards, and maybe even reconcile with their families.

“When you think about the symbolic value of a pay stub,” Lauser said, “it says, ‘I’m responsible, look at me right now, they pay me. I’m worth something.’ ”

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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