Sherri Johnson is one of the many Tacoma area residents working on helping the homeless not only find shelter but a way out of homelessness through employment. She knows their situations better than most, having experienced homelessness at a very young age.
“My roots are buried in poverty. We were homeless and my parents were substance abusers until I was about 7 years old,” Sherri recalled. When her parents decided to get clean, they rented a van and drove to California. Sherri lived in a family shelter for a year, and although her parents did find sobriety, the situation had a lasting impact on her life. After battling her own substance abuse issues, in her early 20s she decided to get her life in order, and with dedication and support was able to refocus and begin a meaningful career.
Sherri worked for recruiting and staffing agencies and really appreciated the business model. Her compassion to help the most vulnerable in the community lead her down a new path and into human services. “I was working with homeless and connecting them with for-profit staffing agencies. While I was getting them employment, I realized they weren’t likely to see advancement in these positions,” she said.
This realization lead Sherri to combine her previous experiences and form Valeo Vocations, a not-for-profit staffing service that not only matches those experiencing homelessness with employment but provides social services, career coaching and financial guidance along the way.
The word ‘Valeo’ comes from Latin and means to be strong, well, and have worth. It’s Sherri’s goal for all who come through her doors to experience this and not only survive but thrive. “The word thrive is where every human being should want to exist. Without food, clothing and shelter you cannot climb the ladder and thrive,” she said.
Each Tuesday at 1pm, there is an open orientation where Sherri and her staff can get to know individuals seeking to get out of homelessness. Here they find what barriers are holding the person back from employment and how they might be able to reduce those barriers. While drug abuse and mental illness are often the first thing people think of when it comes to those who are homeless, Sherri states that barriers vary greatly and that those are not the two most predominant factors.
“Families are in shelters for a number of reasons: They can’t find affordable rent; the loss of employment for the main income generator; or a sudden medical emergency,” she explained.
Once the individual goes through the orientation, they can begin being matched with local employers. Two of the biggest supporters are Goodwill and the City of Tacoma, who actually approached Sherri about a partnership. Valeo Vocations uses a fee-based placement similar to for-profit staffing companies, but instead of pocketing the profit the bulk of the fees are returned to their clients in the form of clothing, case management services, food, assistance with bus fare or gas, or getting them drivers licenses. As the paychecks come in, they continue to work side by side with the participant through financial counseling in hopes of instilling good spending habits. The nonprofit is already seeing participants who were once barely scraping by not only earning solid wages but developing savings accounts as well. “We have a program where we can match funds if they meet certain savings goals which can then be used for housing or a vehicle purchase,” said Sherri.
Just over a year into Valeo Vocations, Sherri is proud of the impact the program has already had. She points to a recent success story in which she worked for weeks and weeks with a local woman who was an addict. The participant finally got checked into 30 days of inpatient treatment, and despite many days of wanting to leave completed the program. Valeo Vocations was able to support her treatment and pay for her rent at a group home once she checked out. She began working with a nonprofit about 20 hours a week to help transition her back into the workforce. The nonprofit initially said they had no funding for another position, but after working for them for four months they created a full-time position for her. She’s been sober for over a year and is now actually a colleague of Sherri.
To date Valeo Vocations has paid out $250,000 in wages. They’ve placed 120 individuals on assignments, 26 of which have secured permanent employment with an average wage of $16.31 per hour. They’ve also prevented 15 households from slipping into homelessness. It’s a pathway Sherri and her team hope to see expand in the coming years.
“When you offer someone hope you see this beautiful transition. You earn their trust. And when they begin believing in themselves, their natural strengths come out,” she said.
When Valeo Vocations asks a person what they want in a career, many do not have a response. It’s hard to think about such a thing when your goals for the day are finding something to eat, how to stay warm and where you are going to sleep for the night. By eliminating those barriers and guiding those wanting to change their circumstances, Sherri is hopeful that she will continue to help people not just survive but thrive.