Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board program makes a real difference: One woman’s journey from homelessness to employed

A person asleep on a park bench
Many justice-involved people can end up without a home or other basic needs, making a job search even more difficult.

by Matt Jocks

For most, taking your future one step at a time is figurative. For Samantha Howell, it was all too literal.

Without a home, a job or a car, her path to a new future was all on her well-worn shoes. Trips to the library, dealing with the rain and the heat, was how she worked toward a life that seemed so far away.

Howell’s 12 years of homelessness—added to a criminal record and short stint behind bars—made the odds long. With the help of the Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board’s Prison to Employment program, Howell has reached the first milestone, holding down a job as a medical billing specialist.

“I feel like I’m really on top of it,” she says. “I’ve been getting pretty good feedback.”

Howell is wary of sounding overly optimistic. She is still living out of her car, waiting to turn her Housing and Urban Development voucher into a permanent home.

“If you don’t have your basic needs met, like housing, transportation and food, employment falls to the wayside for a lot of people. That’s why working with other agencies is critical.”

Fabiola Garcia, an analyst with Job Link and the Sonoma County Human Services Department

She describes herself as “still being on the border,” but that’s a much better place than where she used to be. On the streets between brief stays in shelters, and battling through repeated brushes with the justice system, Howell had a difficult time seeing a different life.

“I had a sense of just floating through life,” she says. “Then I finally got mad enough to do something with my life.”

Drawing on her experience as a teenage Candy Striper, she looked for a future in the medical field.

“Not something dealing directly with patients,” she says. “You know, the blood and gore.”

Focusing on billing and medical coding, she entered the online Laurus Community College program. It meant doing her work in the library—and a lot of walking. It also meant that when the library was closed, she was out of luck.

Determination brought her an Associate of Arts degree. The Sonoma County Workforce Investment Board provided her with temporary housing, coaching in job interview skills and a sense that she was not alone in the battle for her future.

“It kept me moving forward,” she says. “Knowing someone was backing me up and I wasn’t trying to do it all on my own.”

The day-to-day details of pressing forward, such as how to keep your things dry when walking in the rain, are familiar to those who work with clients in Howell’s position.

“If you don’t have your basic needs met, like housing, transportation and food, employment falls to the wayside for a lot of people,” says Fabiola Garcia, an analyst with Job Link and the Sonoma County Human Services Department. “That’s why working with other agencies is critical.”

Also critical is working with employers. Success stories like Howell’s can open the door for the next person in her shoes. There are tax incentives and a bonding program to ease employer concerns.

Positive experiences, however, make the program work.

“There’s no proof someone who has been justice involved is going to be a bad employee,” says George Garcia, employment and training coordinator in the P2E program. “We make sure the folks we send are ready to work.”

Howell has shown that, although she doesn’t feel like her own job is done.

“It’s so hard sometimes to feel like I’ve got something going,” she says. “I’m still fighting for it.”

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About North Bay Employment Connection 28 Articles
North Bay Employment Connection is a collaborative of the Solano & Sonoma County Workforce Development Boards, and newly formed joint powers authority Workforce Alliance of the North Bay (Napa-Lake, Marin & Mendocino counties). As a collaborative, NBEC and its core partners are dedicated to supporting businesses in key North Bay industry sectors, and making smart investments for the region’s workforce systems. Over $12 million has been secured in competitive state and federal grants to enhance NBEC’s capacity to serve the employer and job-seeker communities.