Sparkle Burns moved into the Clinton-Peabody public housing community about two years ago, with her two children, now ages 7 and 3.
“They’re really my motivation around me getting a career and getting them a home, a backyard and a dog,” says Burns, who turns 33 on April 18.
Though losing her job two years ago was tough, she says, she sees it as a blessing to have a place like Clinton-Peabody to land. The 358-unit complex is not far from downtown St. Louis. Burns grew up not far from Clinton-Peabody. She has been employed part-time for the past six months as a “community coach” under a HUD-funded program to support career pathways for public housing residents.
“We go out into the community, knock on residents’ doors, or catch them outside, try to figure out what they want to do,” says Burns. Community coaches work 20 hours a week, and get paid above minimum wage. Burns is directly responsible for outreach to residents in 90 units. “Some people know what they want to do but they don’t know how to make it happen, don’t know which forms to fill out, or maybe they do but they need someone to hold a baby while they do that,” she adds.
About 90 percent of Clinton-Peabody families are single women with children, but more than half the adults in the development are out of work. The average household income in Clinton-Peabody, $7,200, is the lowest in St. Louis public housing. That’s about $3,000 less than most of the other public housing communities in St. Louis, according to Stacey Fowler, adult services/special projects manager at the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE), the agency running the HUD program, known as Jobs Plus.
Fowler trained Burns as a community coach. “It was really exciting for me because I got to take four young ladies who weren’t sure if they could really do what we were asking them to do and watch them transform in front of me over the past eight months of them really just trying to figure out what this looks like,” she says.
“They’ve been great,” Burns says of her fellow coaches. “We didn’t personally know each other at first, but we’ve bonded, shared experiences. It was nice to meet three people in my community that wanted to make change, make things better.”
The group also got to meet others from public housing projects doing Jobs Plus work in other cities, at a March 2016 conference in Washington, D.C. “It was my first-ever business trip,” Burns says. “It was great to connect with so many others and share what we did wrong or a solution to a problem. I didn’t know they had so many of us.”
Nationally, HUD’s $24 million Jobs Plus program is present in NYC, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Cuyahoga, Houston, Memphis, Roanoke, St. Louis and Syracuse. Still considered a pilot program, it is a result of years of dialog between workforce agencies like SLATE and HUD, with workforce agencies seeking funding and HUD’s blessing to put workforce centers directly inside public housing communities.
While there are three full-time SLATE staff stationed at Clinton-Peabody, Burns and the other community coaches there represent the frontline workers, flagging what’s needed and recruiting residents for available programs, like a professional childcare apprenticeship program that is launching this month. The apprenticeship program will pay $9.50 an hour to start, and move apprentices up to $13 an hour for up to two years once they receive their nationally recognized child development associate (CDA) credential. Apprentices will be placed at some of the nearby early childhood care centers that already serve public housing residents, like the LUME Institute. The apprenticeship program was funded through a three-city grant from the Department of Labor.
The community coach position is not meant to provide permanent employment. “We’re using [it] to spring those individuals into training or employment so they can actually improve their skills and go to work,” Fowler says.
One community coach has already moved on to a full-time position elsewhere, and Burns has a second interview with a big four accounting firm later this month.
“I’m a little sad to leave but want to see someone have the same opportunity to get back on their feet like I did,” Burns says. “Sometimes when you struggle you just take the first job you can get. Jobs Plus has given me the foundation to think about the future and go for big goals.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Oscar is a Next City contributing writer, and was a Next City 2015-2016 equitable cities fellow. A New York City-based journalist with a background in global development and social enterprise, he has written about impact investing, microfinance, fair trade, entrepreneurship and more for publications such as Fast Company and NextBillion.net. He has a B.A. in Economics from Villanova University.