Khary Dvorak-Ewell and his team face a daunting challenge: helping people with mental illnesses who’ve been recently released from prison find a job and a place to live in San Francisco, where the average apartment rents for $3,800 per month.
“Even many people on our staff can’t afford to live here anymore,” he said.
Dvorak-Ewell heads the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF)’s Citywide Employment Program, which includes the Housing and Employment for Recovery Outcomes (HERO) program. HERO provides people with mental illnesses six months of no-cost housing and assists them in finding a job.
“Employment and a home is part of their recovery,” he said. “Work gives us purpose, structure, and meaning. Being able to contribute to society gives our clients a huge boost in making them stable and self-sufficient.”
To be eligible for HERO, the clients must participate in the San Francisco Behavioral Health Court. People eligible to participate in the Behavioral Health Court have some type of mental illness, frequently with a co-occurring substance use disorder, and often little or no support system, Dvorak-Ewell said.
Once a person is accepted into HERO, they receive a treatment plan and intensive case management, which includes housing and employment counseling. Participants take part in an 8-week curriculum that includes tips on networking, interviewing, and how they should dress while on an interview.
“Our goal is get them on a level playing field with people who don’t have a record,” said Marta Gilbert, clinical supervisor for the HERO program.
The HERO program started two years ago. In its first year, the organization helped 37 clients find jobs. In 2014, the number of clients who stayed in a job past 90 days rose to 53 percent from 47 percent the previous year. Three months is the benchmark for whether a person will stay in their job, Gilbert said.
Along with the difficulty of finding a job, securing housing in a city that is one of the most expensive in the United States is an additional challenge.
The Citywide Employment Program said that the apartments and other spaces it used to have access to have been whittled down as the tech boom continues to drive up rent prices up in the city. Their program now has only scattered housing in various hotels throughout San Francisco. Members of the Citywide Employment Program team said those hotels are in areas where drugs are rampant, posing extra risk for certain clients. And after six months, the client must find permanent housing, which is equally as difficult.
“We’re struggling on the housing side,” Dvorak-Ewell said. “It’s continually getting more competitive. The cost of living here versus what a person makes is not realistic. Everyone who lives in San Francisco is aware of that.”