Melissa Young

Director, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity, Heartland Alliance

What is your greatest joy or what are you most proud of in your work?

Through our work at Heartland Alliance I’ve had the opportunity to work with and learn from countless community-based organizations, people with lived experience, advocates, experts, funders, researchers, government leaders and others. One of my greatest joys of our work to advance a national conversation about the import of income and employment in preventing and ending homelessness is seeing these stakeholders and others commit to advancing this work within their own roles.

One of my proudest moments happened at the convening we organized in Washington D.C. last October where a cross-section of stakeholders helped to identify federal action steps to advance this work in the future. A few years ago a convening like the one we developed would not have been possiblethe field had not yet matured so to speak. It was inspiring and exciting to witness how the national discussion around income and employment in preventing and ending homelessness had gained momentum with so many stakeholders who were eager to help advance the national discussion.

Who or what inspires you to do your work?

On a personal level, I draw a lot of inspiration from the women past and present in my family and my close friends and colleagues. Each of them, in their own ways, have charted remarkable life paths and hold such wisdom. They inspire me to push the boundaries of what is possible.

I’m also inspired by the people I get to work with every day at Heartland Alliance and in the field who are committed, passionate, strategic, and laser-focused on their goals. The Connections Project sites and the leaders in these communities specifically are pioneering systems collaboration efforts in order to support pathways to income, employment, and economic mobility for a greater number of individuals experiencing homelessness or housing instability. The field is indebted to them for their willingness to take risks, try new things, and lean in to this hard work. Their efforts will help advance national progress and accelerate federal, state, and local action around these ideas. It’s inspiring to see their progress and how their work is sparking attention and action around these ideas in other communities nationwide.

If we are successful, paint a picture of what America will look like five years from now.

Thinking big and perhaps beyond five years here. For our broader policy agenda at Heartland Alliance, if we are successful anyone who wants to work, regardless of the barriers they face, will have access to employment. Period. This goal is inclusive of all people who experience homelessness and housing instability and many other people who face personal and structural barriers to employment like discrimination and the lasting mark of a criminal record that all too often denies individuals employment and education opportunities.

What is the biggest challenge in your work today?

There’s a couple of big challenges that our team talks about pretty consistently:

First, when we look nationally there is no single program or systemand very few dedicated funds directedfocused on meeting the employment needs and interests of individuals and families experiencing homelessness or housing instability. In addition to limited funding and resources, there is also no clear, consistent system of accountability that holds federal public workforce, homeless service systems and on-the-ground programs responsible for advancing employment and economic opportunity specifically for homeless and unstably housed jobseekers. Practically speaking, this lack of sufficient resources and clear accountability mechanisms has a number of ripple effects that thwart efforts to address the employment interests and needs of homeless and unstably housed individuals in local communities.

Second, understanding the relationship between income and housing instability and homelessness requires that we acknowledge and double-down on addressing the historic and current policies and practices, rooted in racism and sexism, that perpetuate income and wealth divides. Racial and ethnic minorities experience homelessness in greater numbers and for longer durations. Families experiencing homelessness are most often headed by individuals who report being female. Heartland Alliance has documented over 500 years of policy actions that have denied African Americans and women in particular from accessing employment, education, training and other opportunities, including access to workplace benefits, protections, and equal wages. A significant share of workers—especially those in historically female-dominated professions—do not enjoy the benefits of basic worker rights, wage and hour laws, and the ability to organize, which exposes them to exploitation in the form of wage theft, and human trafficking. Equally important, throughout U.S. history and continuing today, a number of policies have denied or restricted access to basic assistance services, which can be critical to supporting the success of individuals in work.

What do you wish everyone knew about homelessness?

I wish everyone knew that people experiencing homelessness want to work and many already are working. Around 44% of people experiencing homelessness are working but are not earning enough to keep a stable roof over their heads. Many people experiencing homelessness or housing instability have worked before and many hold a job training certificate or license and/or some college experience. Most individuals experiencing homelessness or housing instability have a high school degree or equivalent.