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Seattle City Program Moves Homeless To Union Jobs

Published Monday, December 24, 2018
by Lilly Fowler/
Seattle City Program Moves Homeless To Union Jobs

(SEATTLE, WASHINGTON) - On a recent cold December morning, a crew made up of the formerly homeless drove out to Angel Morgan P-Patch in South Seattle and, in the midst of kale and other sprouting greens, began laying cement.  The goal was to make the garden wheelchair accessible.

With an orange vest and strawberry tattoos on her neck, April Winfrey, a 38-year-old mother of two sons, pushed gravel into the cracks left exposed between cement squares.  Winfrey, a former cocaine user who had once been forced to surf couches, said she has been clean now for about a year and a half.

In fact, Winfrey has performed so well in eight months of working in construction with the Seattle Conservation Corps that she is now considered a specialist, a designation reserved for good Employees who have learned the tricks of the trade.

“I was scared, the blessings started coming so fast,” Winfrey said of the Seattle Conservation Corps, a program within the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department that provides job opportunities for people living in homelessness. “Blessing after blessing just hit me.”  “Even though I’m the only girl,” Winfrey said of the otherwise all-male crew, “they still don’t give me no slack.”

Explaining why the program, which provides services such as GED classes and resume building, had worked for her, Winfrey said: “If you’ve got a homeless person you can’t just say here, work.  You got to build their self-esteem.”

Established in 1986, the Seattle Conservation Corps has been equipping members of the local homeless population with paid Apprenticeships in construction, from bricklaying to carpentry to plumbing.  

The majority of those who join the program are recovering from some form of substance-abuse issue. 

Every year, the program serves more than 75 adults experiencing homelessness, with most of the cost of the program covered through grants and the work the members do for city departments.

All that hard work has paid off.

The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries recently recognized the Seattle Conservation Corps as an official Pre-Apprenticeship Program, which means many graduates can now go straight from the program to Union jobs that come with high wages and benefits, representing a drastic change in earning potential for most.

Now Winfrey, who once earned less than $300 a week as a Cab Dispatcher, is on course to earn approximately $23.50 an hour.

“We’re a great deal for the Unions,” said Ruth Blaw, the Manager of the Seattle Conservation Corps Program. “They want our people and our people want them.”

Blaw said Union Reps tend to be impressed by the work ethic of corps participants, who often report to the job site early, cheerful and ready to work.

“They’re just drooling over that,” Blaw said.

Speaking of the program, James Owens, Apprenticeship Coordinator with the Ironworkers Union, pointed out that “Seattle Conservation Corps is one of the few Pre-Apprenticeship Programs that provide a living-wage job during training, removing barriers on the path to Apprenticeship.”

Blaw said the program currently has approximately 50 active members.  In addition, there’s typically a wait list of a few dozen people who hope to get into the Seattle Conservation Corps program as members graduate.  

The referrals come from a variety of places: shelters, drug court, tent cities.  

The only qualifications needed to join the program are an ID, Social Security number and a record of homelessness.

Candidates must also pass a physical.  

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