When you think of the words “California” and “housing,” a third word immediately comes to mind: “expensive.”
The median price of a home in the state has surpassed $600,000, according to the California Association of Realtors. More than half of California renters are “cost-burdened” by housing, spending over 30 percent of their household income on rent, according to the California Budget and Policy Center.
It’s no wonder, then, that an increasing number of California residents have found themselves homeless, unable to afford housing costs. Pomona Employment Partners is hoping to change all that, one volunteer at a time.
Managed through the Draper Center for Community Partnerships’ Hunger and Homelessness Initiative program, PEP is a student-run volunteer employment agency for Californians experiencing houselessness, said PEP student leader Ash Maria PO ’22. Volunteers visit the Hope for Home Centralized Service Center in the city of Pomona and act as case managers — employment agency representatives — to assist in employment and wellness success of clients.
PEP’s services are holistic, Maria said. The program provides resume and job application assistance resources for PEP’s clients as well as providing resources for transportation, interview prep and emotional and wellness support.
“We’ve realized that people come to our table for a myriad of reasons,” he said. “A lot of times, it isn’t employment related, but that doesn’t mean we should treat them any differently. We supply humanizing dialogue, ask [them] how they’re doing, and let them talk about their story or their day.”
Sophie Roe PO ’19, founder of PEP, began the program in fall 2017 when she realized 5C students had the potential to be optimal employment case managers. They have a willingness to engage with the community, a knack for applying to a myriad of jobs and geographic proximity, she said.
“I came to the conclusion that employment assistance [is] an area where college students seem uniquely positioned to help people experiencing homelessness,” Roe said. “Plus, a lot of times [other] case managers might be focused more on [obtaining] housing, so there aren’t necessarily … resources to provide [employment assistance]. But obviously, in Los Angeles, you really can’t maintain housing without employment.”
Some students face an adjustment period upon beginning volunteering, citing discomfort that comes from the social perception of people experiencing homelessness, Maria said.
“During the first few [volunteer shifts] … there’s always a bit of a caution,” he said. “Once folks can get a demystified picture of what it means to be houseless in Southern California, that discrepancy goes away.”
Maria acknowledged the necessity of ending the “othering” of people experiencing homelessness.
“In reality, homelessness looks like you and I,” he said. “There are people who literally look like they could be Claremont College students who pass through [Hope for Home]. We just need to normalize what it means to be houseless. [Houselessness] really [does] look like you and your family.”
Allison Liu PO ’21, a volunteer since PEP’s inception, acknowledged this reluctance in her own experience, but said she now looks forward to engage with others during her time at Hope for Home.
“PEP has definitely been a growing experience for me,” she said. “I remember being apprehensive to go up to people and talk to them, but now I love conversing with those at [Hope for Home] and learning more about their thoughts and backgrounds.”
Roe said PEP allows her to recontextualize her student life, keeping her from being occupied over potentially trivial matters and reminding her of what matters more in life.
“[PEP] gave me perspective,” she said. “I’d be very stressed about a paper, and then I would go to my PEP shift. It’s very sobering to see the things that really matter in life to people — being housed, having food to eat. It really makes our on-campus stresses seem extremely small.”
PEP is mutually beneficial, Roe said.
“It was incredible to … build friendships with people at Hope for Home,” Roe said. “It was really heartwarming. I still go in there … for [shifts] and say hi to people; we ask each other [about our days]. We’ve developed friendships.”
Maria also commented on the rewarding nature of being part of PEP.
“Being houseless is extremely wearing,” he said. “But because of that, when we do see folks have a mindset shift and say, ‘I am employable, I am worthy of love and this is not my permanent state,’ that is the most beautiful thing.”