For more than fifty years, Peter Cove, the founder of America Works, has dedicated himself to finding jobs for welfare recipients, ex-offenders and other low income Americans. During most of this time he has stood apart from and often battled the liberal establishment of social welfare advocates, academics, and elected officials. In the past few years he has turned his attention to the homeless, advocating for and implementing a jobs strategy that differs from the dominant liberal models.

Hundreds of homeless employment initiatives are operating throughout the country, in all major cities and even many smaller ones. Cove’s “work first” approach is not a silver bullet, as he will be the first to acknowledge. But Cove and America Works are developing a track record with homeless veterans, just as they have developed a track record with other Americans on the margins of the job market.

Below, let’s look briefly at what Cove is doing. Stay with me on Cove’s backstory in Part 1; I think you’ll find it worth the time. In Parts II and III, we look at the promise of Cove’s homeless approach going forward.

Part I: Losing Faith in the War on Poverty, and Developing America Works

In 1965, inspired by President Johnson’s call to end poverty in America, Cove dropped out of graduate school at the University of Wisconsin and took a position in New York at the Antipoverty Operations Board, the city agency created to administer the rapidly expanding War on Poverty funds. Recalling this period, Cove would later write, “It’s almost impossible to describe the excitement that we felt as we crafted plans for new entitlement programs with few budget constraints…we believed that we were part of something great and good”.

But it wasn’t long before Cove began to lose faith in the War on Poverty, especially the growing welfare and social service expenditures. Money was flowing to anti-poverty agencies with no accountability, no measurement of results, little concern for actually reducing poverty (other than providing jobs to colleagues at the poverty agency). Even more alarming, the goal of anti-poverty activists became getting more and more people on government benefits, rather than employment, autonomy, self-sufficiency.

Cove left the Antipoverty Operations Board, but continued to search for a role in which he could be part of the antipoverty movement. He found this role in the 1970s at the Manhattan office of Wildcat Services Corporation. Wildcat was an early welfare-to-work program that emphasized direct placement into jobs, and also transparent monitoring of results. “At Wildcat we showed that the best way to get clients off welfare was to get them paid work immediately, rather than enroll them in training and education programs. I saw with my own eyes the value of work—any kind of paid work—in reducing welfare dependency and attacking poverty. I learned that if we helped welfare client get jobs, even entry level jobs, they would then attend to their other needs. By contrast, if the government gave the, money and other benefits, they were likely to remain dependent.”

In 1984, Cove started America Works with his wife and colleague, Dr. Lee Bowes. Continuing to the present, Bowes has been the CEO, and lead in directing the daily operations and implementing the America Works vision.

Building on Wildcat, America Works put into practice the “work first” model. The idea at the center of this model: welfare recipients benefit most not from the lengthy education, training or counseling programs, but rather from direct placement into a job. Once people are placed in jobs, they often find ways on their own to address other “static” or challenges in their lives. “When some mothers on welfare came to us, they often explained that they could not work because they had no day care. We would still send them on a job interview, and when the company wanted to hire them, miraculously, they found a grandmother or daycare center.”

Cove and Bowes invested their own funds to help America Works get off the ground, and it slowly begin to win contracts with local and state governments, to find employment for welfare recipients. Over the next decade, two very different office holders propelled the growth of America Works. The first was Bill Clinton, who joined with House Speaker Newt Gingrich to champion a work orientation for the welfare system, culminating in the 1996 welfare reform legislation. The second was Rudy Giuliani, New York Mayor during the 1990s. Giuliani initially was skeptical that long term welfare recipients could be placed into jobs, but soon became an America Works advocate and brought America Works on board to work with New York’s extensive welfare system.

America Works’ “work first” model was by no means universally embraced. Welfare rights advocates and others on the left heatedly denounced America Works, claiming it pushed welfare recipients into “modern slavery” of  lower wage jobs, that welfare recipients should be guaranteed the same middle class jobs as other Americans. Cove regularly pushed back that middle class might be the goal, but service providers needed to start with the jobs that were realistic, that nobody, welfare recipient or not, was guaranteed a job. In his book, Poor No More: Rethinking Dependency and the War on Poverty, Cove cites an incident from Oakland in which “one man who had been in prison for almost thirty years was insulted when he was offered a job at a small auto parts store for $12 an hour. The probation officer agreed with his indignation. She said, ‘I have never worked for as little as $12 an hour and I do think he should have to.’ Six months later the man was still unemployed and very depressed.”

Currently, America Works operates in 28 cities, and has expanded “work first”  beyond welfare recipients to ex-offenders, workers on the disability rolls–Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), out of school youth and other high unemployment groups. Since its founding, America Works claims placement of over 1.5 million low income persons into jobs. It is now one of the largest job placement entities in the United States.

Part II: A Work-First Strategy for the Homeless

In July, Cove published “Helping the Homeless: Lessons from Welfare Reform”. He described the current homeless services system as broken, and called for the implementation of a “work first”/“housing first” approach. Cities, like Seattle were spending nearly $100,000 for every homeless man, woman and child, even as the number of homeless increased. Only a “work first” strategy, combined with a strategy for permanent, rather than transitional housing, could make a dent in the homeless numbers.  At least part of the funding for “work first” could come from redirecting funds now going to the homeless social services bureaucracies.

Cove drew on Amercia Works’ own efforts over the previous few years with homeless veterans—estimated by Cove to be around 12% of the homeless. Since 2014, America Works has placed over 2700 homeless veterans in jobs, utilizing a model similar to its one for welfare recipients. Homeless veterans are referred by mental health agencies and other providers and the immediate focus is work placement. The assessment and individual work plan is done within a few weeks, as is the concentrated work preparation process.

America Works has a cadre of business representatives who work with local employers to identify job openings, as well as ties with major national employers, including Starbucks, CVS Pharmacies and Allied Universal Security. The business representative is responsible for understanding the job needs, and being part of the team with the America Works case manager in making matches of jobs and job seekers. Following placement, America Works keeps in regular touch with both the employee and employer, and will assist the employee with mobility strategies, as desired.

Many service providers utilize elements similar to America Works’ approach: assessment, placement, retention services and job coaching, opportunities for mobility. What differentiates America Works are other characteristics.

One is the emphasis on placement results not process, and willingness to enter into contracts with local and state governments that link payment to results. America Works was the first for-profit welfare to work agency, and for homeless veterans offers governments the opportunity to pay based on the number placed in jobs and retained for at least ninety days.

Second, America Works understands the need at times for repeated job placements. Kyle Wicks is the Site Director in San Francisco for America Works, and emphasizes, “We might have someone lose a job, even a second or third job. We stay with them.” Cove agrees, “The job placement process is one in which people may need to go through several jobs until they get the right fit.”

Third, America Works is transparent in outcomes. It welcomes independent research on its operations, and has pivoted and adapted its structures several times over the years.

America Works is planning to expand its homeless employment services in the year ahead, with the encouragement of its existing government clients. “To many people, this would seem a stubborn population to coax into work,” Cove recently noted of the homeless. “But experience tells us something different. There is hope of employment for people with addiction problems, homeless veterans, ex-offenders and those with mental illness. Where work has been the tool, normal life has followed.”

Part III: “See Not What You Know, Know What You See”: “ Work-First” Going Forward

“See not what you know; know what you see” is an aphorism attributed to Rabbi Abraham Heschel. Cove quotes it often, urging colleagues to go beyond ideology, to continually rethink and restructure anti-poverty approaches. So what do we see with “work-first” as a homeless employment approach?

“Work-first” does not ensure multi-year or even multi-month employment stability. Even with the supportive services and job coaching, the homeless veterans in America Works lose jobs, are terminated for absenteeism, or poor performance or tens of other reasons. (This is the experience of  all job training programs today and has been since the Manpower Development Training Act of the 1960s). Even if everything goes right, workers, including America Works participants, lose their jobs all of the time because of company downsizing.

But the limited America Works experience so far suggests that the numbers on job retention are strong, and bear out the role of jobs in helping homeless veterans address other issues in their lives. In New York, independent tracking of participants found 60% of homeless veterans were still working 90 days after initial job placement. A study of a smaller cohort of homeless veterans in the America Works Chicago project found a similar number employed after 270 days on the job.

Additionally, other agencies that are experimenting with transitional employment, a variant of the “work first” model, are finding similar success.  Two of the more active efforts are in Southern California, in Los Angeles and in nearby Glendale. In Los Angeles, a consortium of social enterprises have been pulled together by REDF, the national experts on social enterprises, as part of the Los Angeles Regional Initiative for Social Enterprise (LA:RISE), focusing on employment of the homeless.

The social enterprises are businesses (cleaning crews, food preparation, landscape) operated by non-profits, including Goodwill Southern California, Chrysalis, and Homeboy Enterprises, that have the twin goals of providing work experience for participants and operating as a self-sustaining (or partial sustaining) business. The social enterprises incorporate supportive services and counseling, but the central element is the job and its structure.

Workforce officials in Los Angeles consider the LA:RISE among the best-performing training projects. John Reamer, Jr., Interim General Manager for the City Economic and Workforce Development Department, noted, “We have been creating a model that brings together social enterprises, traditional workforce development programs and homeless services agencies.”

In nearby Glendale, the Verdugo Workforce Development Board is part of the Regional Immediate Intervention Service to Employment (RIISE) project that utilizes transitional employment for the homeless. In this project, the jobs are in the public sector, primarily maintenance work with the Glendale Community Parks & Services Department. Executive Director Judith Velasco believes the work approach is the right one in providing structure and confidence, along with “the right staff involved sensitive to the needs of the homeless.”

The ideological battles over “work first” have not ended—“work first” remains a contrarian view among much of the social welfare world, and opponents on the left, such as the current New York Mayor Bill deBlasio, continue to try to put up obstacles. At the same time, a growing number of agencies serving the homeless, are coming around to it: recognizing the role of a job in helping the homeless address other challenges. “A job, a better job, a career” has for some years been the mantra of the Los Angeles County welfare agency, emphasizing that a path toward the middle class often starts with an entry level job.

What we don’t know is how much the work first model can be scaled; what percentage of the homeless population can be placed into jobs. What would be the cost of “work first” for, say, 20%- 25%of the homeless, and where would the funding come from?  Cove is confident that a part of the funding can come from redirecting funds now going to the current homeless providers, but these providers are accustomed to funding and usually have strong ties to local elected and appointed officials.

And where the jobs will come from. Attempts to identify high numbers of job opportunities for the homeless in the private sector or public sector have floundered. America Works, with all of its advantages and national employer ties, must intensively sell each employer, to achieve a job opportunity. Even in the current environment, the strongest employment market of the past five decades, employers faced with so many competitive pressures, are tough sells.

Social enterprises represent a welcoming employment environment for the homeless, given the mission of these enterprises and wage subsidies they often receive. However, their capacity for expansion is questionable. As REDF President Carla Javits notes, REDF spent years building a social enterprise network in Los Angeles before LA: RISE, so that in 2019 its social enterprises expect to hire over 1200 workers. But Los Angeles is the outlier. In most other cities, social enterprises rarely hire more than a few handfuls of employers, and struggle to stay in business.

Which brings us to the public sector. The Glendale project of jobs in park maintenance is well-regarded, but has employed fewer than 30 participants total in its first two years. Other cities have a greater number of  public sector employment slots for the homeless–San Francisco’s “Jobs Now” is at around 150 slots at any time—but all are well under 5% of their estimated homeless populations. In the 1990s, the New York City Human Resources Administration, under Mayor Giuliani and Commissioner Jason Turner, funded over 1000 positions in park cleaning, safety and maintenance for adults on the benefit rolls, but the program has been sharply reduced over the years.

For homeless employment going forward, the jobs perplex is this: even as “work first” is gaining support, there is little agreement not only on funding, but more basically on identifying additional jobs in the private sector, social enterprises and especially the public sector. The public sector seems most promising for “work first” expansion, though no good models of scale currently exist. Based on the history of public sector job creation in the United States, any new model will succeed only if it is narrowly targeted to the homeless, welfare recipients, or those with more severe mental health or developmental disabilities, not to a broad population.                                                                                                                                           ****

“From the time Lee and I wake up in the morning until the time we go to sleep, our main thoughts are how to get more people into jobs” Cove said recently, even after his more than fifty years doing this.

As we approach Labor Day 2019, we can learn much from these long time practitioners, who have eschewed political labels and been willing to break rank from all establishments.

Originally published at Forbes.