Creating a 'culture of work': a look at St. Louis Housing Authority's new job-training program | St. Louis Public Radio

Creating a 'culture of work': a look at St. Louis Housing Authority's new job-training program

Dec 28, 2015

At 53, Lucretia Hollins is older than your average cheerleader. But that, in essence, is what she’s paid 20 hours a week to be. Hollins encourages her neighbors to sign up — and stick with — a new job-training program at their public housing complex, the Clinton-Peabody in St. Louis' near south-side.

“It’s not so much about the paycheck. It’s about being able to help somebody else,” said Hollins. “Because I know where I was at, and you can’t let your circumstances in life take you out.”

Hollins is one of four community coaches at the Clinton-Peabody hired as part of a six-month rotation to model the job-search process for her neighbors. The new job-training program is paid for through a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grant the St. Louis Housing Authority received in April.

The goal of the $3 million grant is to “create a culture of work” at the public housing complex. Currently, about 30 percent of families living at the Clinton-Peabody have a working family member.

Through the grant, HUD is attempting to reduce the high rates of unemployment at public housing nationwide; a trend reinforced partly by a federal rule that keeps rent at 30 percent of a family’s income.

That rule can mean families have little motivation to look for work or find a better paying job because their disposable income could remain the same. But for the next four years the rule that ties rent to income is suspended at the Clinton-Peabody if residents sign up for Jobs Plus, the job-training program.

As part of the grant, the community room at Clinton-Peabody is being spruced up with murals. A corner is being turned into a tech center where teens and adults can learn about coding and how to be an entrepreneur.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

According to St. Louis Housing Authority Executive Director Cheryl Lovell,  70 residents — about a quarter of those eligible — have signed up for the program so far.
“Probably our biggest challenge is making sure people understand that there’s a process and you have to go through the process and there are things that you need to do to get yourself ready,” Lovell said. “Sometimes that’s frustrating for participants. They think all they’ve got to do is come and sign up and that’s it. They’re done and a job will just come. And, no, there’s a lot of work involved. And it’s hard work.”

Including Hollins and the three other community coaches, seven participants have found work through the job-training program so far. Before participants can apply for jobs, many need to finish their GED or complete some other form of training. 

Community Coach Lucretia Hollins points to the Jobs Plus sign written on the chalkboard of the job-training program's office at the Clinton-Peabody.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

“Where I’m at right now, it's working,” said Hollins. “A lot of doors can open up. It’s really if you want it. Because it’s here. I’ve been to a couple job fairs. I’ve learned how to better engage with people. I’ve learned that networking is real important. I’ve learned how to do a resume.”

Hollins said that her goal is to find a full-time job with benefits. She’d like to do clerical work or customer service. She used to be a meter maid for the city of St. Louis before she got injured in a car accident five years ago and couldn’t work while she healed.

Part of the role of the grant is also to help remove barriers to employment, such as transportation or child care. As a single mom of two young children, the latter was important for Sparkle Burns, one of Clinton-Peabody’s other community coaches.

 Burns was recently able to get her three-year-old daughter in Head Start. Her son is in first grade.

“It’s helped tremendously,” Burns said. “Her going to school has enabled me to get my life back together and be able to look for employment to be able to provide for them.”

Sparkle Burns smiles at a Clinton-Peabody resident while working as a Jobs Plus community coach.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

So far, Burns said the most helpful part of the job training program has been the financial literacy classes because it’s helped her learn what her money can do if she saves it instead of spending it on clothes or a TV.

“I have a savings account. I’ve been budgeting. (The financial literacy teacher has) been working with me to fix my credit score because my ultimate goal is to buy my own home,” Burns said.

Helping residents save the funds to buy their own home, or in other ways become self-sufficient, is also one of the ultimate goals of the HUD grant.

According to St. Louis Housing Authority Executive Director Cheryl Lovell, 1,300 to 1,400 families are waiting for a spot to open up for public housing in St. Louis.

“When people are in a place where they don’t need public housing anymore that creates an opportunity,” Lovell said. “So if families are successful and don’t need our help anymore there are a whole bunch of other families who need our help.”

But the more immediate goal, Lovell said, is just to help public housing residents be “in a place where there’s not a constant struggle to pay the rent and put food on the table.”

“If you can get a job and your kids are taken care of and you don’t have to worry about those things every day, that really does create a lot of comfort in one’s life that many of our families don’t have right now,” Lovell said.

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.