California program for the homeless helps them pin down jobs. Ventura County `club' imparts confidence and job-hunting skills

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Job hunting is difficult enough, but for the homeless there are added complications: Where do you spruce up for interviews without a room, much less a dresser and mirror? How do you check the want ads without the price of a newspaper? What about mail from prospective employers, or a place to make or receive phone calls?

Ventura County's Homeless Job Club not only provides such basic facilities, it trains the homeless in job-hunting skills. The experimental program, which can serve only a small number of the county's approximately 5,000 homeless people, is nearing the end of its first year short of its goals and unsure about future funding. But those behind it are confident it will survive and grow.

A project of the Ventura County Commission on Human Concerns, the club has just one paid staff member - an employment specialist. It depends on the services of volunteers and staff members of the county's Family Opportunity Center United Services Project (FOCUS).

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The club is funded by local donations and $64,000 of federal money administered by the Private Industry Council of Ventura County.

``The Job Club is the only one of its kind we know of in the country,'' says FOCUS manager Jo Anne Moore. A source at the National Coalition of the Homeless in Washington, D.C., says that although there are other employment programs for the homeless, Ventura's is one of only two or three that operate separately from overnight shelters.

Robert Rodarte is one of 24 formerly homeless people who have so far have found full-time employment after completing the Job Club program. Mr. Rodarte, who had come to Ventura from Los Angeles and was living in his car, enrolled in the Job Club program.

Three months ago Rodarte was employed by an auto lube shop. ``The club turned things around for me,'' he says. ``I was more positive about job hunting.''

The 20 hours of classroom work are built around a job-hunting manual prepared by Joanne Norton, Job Club employment specialist.

Ms. Norton says that, while the dos and don'ts of r'esum'es, job applications, and interviews are covered, the importance of self-esteem is stressed.

``I don't care how good your r'esum'e, application, and experience are,'' Norton says. ``If you don't feel good about yourself, or if your clothes are a mess, you're not going to get that job.

``You need to have a good attitude.''

Brian Neffenger, a current Job Clubs student, says: ``Joanne really keeps after us to keep positive. What they do here is point you in the right direction, get you the things you need. You're the one that has to go out and do these things. They are not going to get you your jobs, your interviews, [but] they point out the way.''

Rachael Donovan enrolled in the Job Club after separating from her husband, losing her house, and going jobless for more than a year. When she entered the Job Club program, Ms. Donovan and her two teen-age children were on welfare and living in a motel.

After completing the course, Donovan landed a companion-aide job with the State of California. Her two teen-agers have new part-time jobs, the family is off welfare, and she and her husband are back together.

``Job Club teaches you to think positive about yourself,'' says Donovan. ``You learn how to be presentable, not be afraid of interviews, how to fill out applications, and to be ready to show them [employers] what you can do.''

Emplyoment specialist Norton says she knew she had her work cut out for her from the start. Each homeless person had to be prepared for employment interviews, both physically and mentally. This entails many ``pep talks,'' as well as everyday necessities - haircuts, eyeglasses, bus tokens, and clothes. Participants have to be sent to other public and private agencies for such things.

Nearing the end of its first year, the club is undergoing review and changes. Under the terms of its funding agreement, the Job Club was limited to 88 people. If at least 57 of the 88 do not obtain and stay with a full-time job for 30 days, the club will not receive all of the $64,000.

Norton says the club has received credit for 24 successful hires and expects only about 10 to 15 more by June 30, the end of the initial year.

``The goal [of 57] was unrealistic,'' she says. Each homeless person needed more attention than she first realized, Norton explains. ``We were understaffed and underfunded,'' she says.

Citing exhaustion as her main reason, Norton recently resigned.

``The program will continue,'' says FOCUS manager Moore. ``We are in the process of applying for a second-year grant, and we have every indication we will receive the funding.

``We really needed to learn as we worked with the homeless,'' Moore says. ``It's like building the track while driving the train at the same time. Now we know what to expect.

``We are falling a little bit short of our original goal,'' she says. ``We were a little ambitious in projecting our numbers.''

Moore says that there will be an effort to increase funding, staff, and enrollment, building on the foundation established by Norton.

``We consider the Job Club very successful,'' she states.

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