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Taking a new approach to end homelessness

Tashea Coles, a mother of two, is one of hundreds who found an apartment and employment through the Secure Jobs program.Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Roberitine Hunter, a single mother, ended up in a homeless shelter four years ago after a job-related injury forced her to stop working. She started getting back on her feet nearly two years later, when she received state housing subsidies that allowed her to get an apartment and child care for her young daughter.

The next piece came when the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, which provided the housing subsidy, referred her to Jewish Vocational Service in Boston, which helped her earn a commercial driver’s license and land a part-time job driving a bus for company that transports people with disabilities.

“My long-term goal is to get a steady, 40-hour job that has good pay and good benefits,” said Hunter, 29. “I know there’s a lot of work I have to do before I can accomplish that.”


A new initiative, funded by the Boston-based foundation of former Reebok chief executive Paul Fireman and his wife, Phyllis, is trying to demonstrate that a coordinated approach between social service agencies is an effective way to break the cycle of homelessness. Through this statewide pilot program, known as Secure Jobs, the Fireman Foundation has awarded $1.5 million in grants to encourage housing, employment, and other agencies to work together provide comprehensive services to help low-income families regain financial independence and stay out of the shelter system.

The philanthropy this year plans to continue the initiative with another $1 million, which will be matched by the state.

Too often in Massachusetts, said Susanne Beaton, interim director of the Fireman Foundation, services aimed at ending homelessness and making families self-sufficient are uncoordinated, managed by agencies that work independently of each other. For example, a single mother might secure housing subsidies from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, but then have to wait a year or more to receive child care subsidies from the Department of Early Education and Care.


To help break down these barriers, the foundation created Secure Jobs, a pilot program aimed at creating a model for a comprehensive approach to dealing with homelessness. The program made grants to social services organizations in five regions — Greater Boston, Greater Lowell, southeastern Massachusetts, the South Shore, and Western Massachusetts — to create one-stop shopping for services.

“This program has been a way of inviting legislators to see that if you want people to get to work there are some important partnerships that have to be melded together to make it work,” said Beaton.

The Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation, with a $170 million endowment, was founded in 1998 to address family homelessness. Over the past few years, the combination of a weak economy, poor job market, and rapidly rising rents has contributed to a surge in homelessness, with the number of families staying in state emergency shelters recently reaching record levels.

The state more than doubled its spending on shelters and housing programs between 2007 and 2013, to more than $300 million.

The agencies participating in pilot programs, working with the Patrick administration, designed jobs programs based on the needs and employment opportunities in their regions. In Greater Boston, the housing partnership teamed up with Jewish Vocational Service, or JVS to first provide families with stable living conditions, then training and job placement.

As of January, about two-thirds, or 82, of the 123 people recruited for the Boston program have found jobs as home health aides, drivers, security guards, and food prep workers.


Statewide, participating agencies enrolled 506 formerly homeless parents in the Secure Jobs program from a pool of 5,400 Massachusetts families receiving rental subsidies through a temporary state program known as HomeBase, created to quickly move Massachusetts families out of emergency shelters and into their own apartments. Of those enrolled, 315, or more than 60 percent, had been placed in jobs as of January.

One of them was Tashea Coles, a 23-year-old mother of two. After spending some 18 months in a motel in Waltham used to house homeless families, she received housing subsidies through Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, which allowed her to get an apartment in Boston. The housing partnership referred her to Secure Jobs at JVS, which helped her land a job as a security guard at a building in downtown Boston.

The job is part time, but, she said, it is a start toward full-time work and better paying jobs. The biggest benefit of the program, Coles said, is the support from JVS, which is still checking on her months after she started her job.

“They motivated me, they helped me get back into wanting to work, they got my confidence up,” she said. “People not forgetting about you, that’s what makes it better, the constant not forgetting.”

Lonnie Shekhtman can be reached at