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Employment boost: A look at St. Louis Housing Authority's year-old job training program

Sparkle Burns, a community coach with Jobs Plus, entertains Kylie Short while the 9-month-old's mother works on her resume at Clinton-Peabody's Al Chappelle Center in December 2015.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Sparkle Burns started out as a community coach with Clinton-Peabody's job training program last year before finding a full-time job at an accounting firm. In this 2015 photo, Burns entertains Kylie Short while the 9-month-old's mother works on her resume.

This time last year, Sparkle Burns sometimes had to go to a food pantry to make sure there was dinner on her table.

But with the help of a new job training program at her public housing complex, the single mom was able to get her daughter into the Head Start program, where she also found a part-time job as a community coach.

Then in April she landed a full-time job — with benefits — at an accounting firm.

“I love going to work every day,” said Burns. “It’s kind of indescribable, but if I could say anything about it, it’s me getting me back now. Me being able to take care of the kids and do whatever I want and reach goals that I might not have been able to do a year before, it’s in all honesty been a fulfilling ride.”

In April 2015, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the St. Louis Housing Authority a $3 million grant to create the job training program at the Clinton-Peabody, the largest public housing complex in the city.

About 33 percent of families living in the complex just south of downtown had a working family member last year.

HUD awarded the grant to St. Louis Housing Authority and other public housing agencies across the country in hopes of reducing the high unemployment rate common at many large complexes like the Clinton-Peabody, which has about 1,000 residents.

Cheryl Lovell, executive director of the St. Louis Housing Authority, said Clinton-Peabody’s employment rate has gone up by seven percent since the agency received the grant and began the job-training program. About 40 percent of families now have a working family member.

When the Jobs Plus program began, its goal was to “create a culture of work” at the complex. A year into the four-year grant, Lovell said more residents have begun to embrace the idea.

"I went from nothing to something really fast." — Sparkle Burns, Jobs Plus participant

“We’re still working on it. That’s a lofty goal, and we’re working on it. There’s some movement but it’s a slow process,” Lovell said. “The people that are involved, you can see a little bit of a change in attitude, but still not everybody wants to be involved. Not everybody wants to participate. Not everybody believes.”

So far, 208 people have enrolled in the job-training program, which helps participants set goal and provides transportation and childcare assistance. People in the program also get help with preparing resumes, obtaining job certifications and apprenticeships.

Of its 208 participants, 75 have found jobs.  All told, about 350 working-age adults live at Clinton-Peabody.

Lovell said some people are more involved in the program than others, and one area that hasn’t been as successful as they’d like is education. The program had to cancel a GED class because not enough people enrolled.

Thanks to a key provision of the grant, residents of the Clinton-Peabody have more incentive to find work. A federal rule usually ties rent at public housing to 30 percent of a family’s income, so when residents find jobs, much of their paychecks go to rent instead of things that could improve their quality of life.

But until 2019, residents enrolled in the job training program don’t have to pay more rent if they get a job.

With knowledge gleaned from a financial literacy class, Sparkle Burns was able to save enough to take her 4-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son to Disney World. Now she’s putting all her spare money in a savings account. She hopes to have enough for a down payment on a house by the time the HUD grant ends in 2019.

“That’s my goal. To stay and save, and then, only then when I feel comfortable and all my Ts are crossed and my Is are dotted then that’s when I’ll make the big move," Burns said. "But until now I’m going to take advantage of the program.

“Jobs Plus, it was really the missing variable in the equation for me to get back on my feet and be successful and I really hope other residents take advantage because Jobs Plus will work for you how you want it to work, so if you put a lot into it you’ll get a lot. I’m a witness. I can say I went from nothing to something really fast.”

Follow Camille on Twitter: @cmpcamille.