During his first several years at Chicago House, CEO Stan Sloan noticed an alarming trend.
Every year, hundreds of clients would make their way to the HIV/AIDS nonprofit to take advantage of its housing and case management services. But only a small number made the leap out of subsidy-based programs and into more permanent employment situations.
"The HIV/AIDS population will not access mainstream employment programs because there's too many fears unique to them," Sloan said. "They're afraid of disclosure in the workplace. They're afraid of what it's going to do to their health. They're afraid of taking their medications and whether they're going to be able to do that. And mostly they're afraid of what happens if: 'OK, It took me years to get onto Social Security income. If I go off and get sick, how can I get back on?'"
Hoping to address the panoply of concerns, Sloan set to work meeting with lawyers, AIDS organizers and city officials. And in 2005, Chicago House launched the city's first citywide employment program for people with HIV/AIDS. [ Sloan asked that the program's name be kept private to protect its participants' safety and confidentiality. ]
"Housing's always going to be at our core," Sloan said, "but our most cutting edge, our most important program right now, is our employment program. Nobody else in the nation is focusing on it the way that we are, to the degree that we are, as successfully as we are."
After preliminary meetings with Mark Ishaug, former president/CEO of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, and Chris Brown, assistant city health commissioner, Sloan realized that to address the HIV population's unique concerns, Chicago House would need to create an entirely new breed of programming.
"We tried to find a program to model ours off of, and there wasn't one," Sloan said.
Chicago House's 4-week program offers a holistic approach to employment preparedness. Participants address basic career concerns through resume help, mock interviews and meetings with career counselors.
Those who have been living on the streets or have never held a 9-5 job benefit from sessions on professional etiquette and hygiene expectations. Yoga, spirituality and substance abuse therapy are also integrated into sessions, many of which are conducted by Inspiration Corporation, a local NGO that works to end homelessness.
"If something is left behind and isn't addressed, it'll pull the whole person back," Sloan said.
HIV-related concerns naturally take center stage. A representative from the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities talks to groups about managing paychecks, weaning off Social Security and how to get back on it, if necessary.
"You can cost yourself out of a public benefit very easily, and then you're not earning enough money to keep up with your life," said Lisa Razzano, a UIC professor who researches barriers to employment for those with HIV/AIDS. "The core of what [ Chicago House is ] trying to accomplish is that dependence on benefits. They're not saying: Get off your benefits; their bad. They're saying: Benefits change, and you can't rely only on that entitlement."
To date, more than 600 people have gone through Chicago House's employment program. The average placement rate sits at 40 percent, a high number for populations that are HIV/AIDS-affected or formerly homeless, Sloan said.
Though the program was doing exceptionally well and participants rated it highly, many found it difficult to obtain full-time positions.
"They never thought they would be productive again in their lives," Sloan said. "All of a sudden, they're so excited. They do stellar in the program. They're ready to move forward, and because of their histories, we couldn't get an employer to take a chance on them. So we thought, well, let's just start our own business where we can give them that chance."
Chicago House partnered with a class at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management to explore viable business models. After weeks of deliberation, they settled on a bakery, and Sweet Miss Giving's was born.
Launched in October 2008, Sweet Miss Giving's sells all-natural, preservative-free baked goods that are made from scratch on-site. Most bakers are interns working with Chicago House's employment program, and 100 percent of proceeds are funneled back into Chicago House services.
Participants start things off with a 4-week unpaid training session ( offered in rotating locations throughout the city ) where they learn food service basics such as baking, packaging, customer service and delivery.
"Even in a very bad economy, the food service continues to hire and need people," Sloan said. By learning a variety of skills, interns' job prospects increase considerably.
Next up is a 6-month paid internship that doubles as continued education and the first line on many people's resumes. Close to 100 percent of Sweet Miss Giving's graduates find full-time employment.
Sloan originally worried that transitioning from unemployment to full 40-hour workweeks might be detrimental to clients' health.
"What we have found is just the opposite," he said. "The more that people enter into normal life activities such as work, which is such a part of human dignity, the better their health perceptions are. They're no longer just sitting in their apartments thinking about being sick… As their health perceptions change and they start thinking more positively, their actual health follows."
Razzano and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago conducted studies comparing the health of HIV-positive and HIV-negative people who work fulltime.
"It was not a physiological thing or a biological illness-related thing that put people in the workforce," Razzano said. "What we found in one of our studies… was all mental health stuff. Did people believe their health was stable? Did they have a more positive general outlook on their health?"
Worldwide, the No. 1 barrier to employment is depression, Razzano said. By boosting a client's mental health and feelings of self-worth, employment programs such as those at Chicago House can augment physical health.
Additionally, helping clients become self-sufficient reduces the strain on already underfunded NGO programming. With 50,000 new infections every year in the United States ( most of which come from poor communities ) , it is essential to make sure those who are newly diagnosed will have access to social services by alleviating overcrowding. And employment is one of the best ways to do that.
"Employment is the key for the future for HIV and AIDS services," Sloan said.
To learn more about the Chicago House or Sweet Miss Giving's, visit www.chicagohouse.org or www.sweetmissgiving.com .
This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.