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How tight is the labor market? Employers flock to hire qualified homeless job applicants

‘I have a lot to offer, and I do really need a job’

Soraya Rigor, emerging from a long period of homelessness, is close to getting a business degree from Sacramento State. She attended a job fair hosted by groups that serve the homeless at a Salvation Army center in Oak Park on Friday, June 1.
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Soraya Rigor, emerging from a long period of homelessness, is close to getting a business degree from Sacramento State. She attended a job fair hosted by groups that serve the homeless at a Salvation Army center in Oak Park on Friday, June 1.

Snapple was hiring. Hyatt Hotel was seeking workers. So were Thunder Valley Resort, Fed Ex, the Twin Rivers Unified School District and many more.

Soraya Rigor carried an impressive attitude and resume into Friday's job fair. She is close to getting a degree in business administration from Sacramento State. She has worked in a variety of fields. She is articulate and bubbles over with enthusiasm. But she also is emerging from a long period of homelessness. That made her nervous. Would any employer consider her?

The answer? Absolutely.

In a tight employment market, 24 companies sent representatives to Friday's "hiring event," which sought to connect homeless and formerly homeless men and women with work opportunities. The job fair, hosted by nonprofits that serve homeless people, took place at the Salvation Army's Ray Robinson Oak Park Community Center.

Rigor was among nearly 100 people who have participated in job training programs sponsored by local agencies. Prospective employees wore business attire, toted resumes and sat for interviews on the spot.

"It's kind of risky talking about homelessness," Rigor said. "There is a stigma attached to it. But I'm going to be honest about it. I have a lot to offer, and I do really need a job." She planned to talk with every potential employer on the scene.

Rigor and others perused tables manned by company representatives who posted job listings and touted employee benefits, in many cases including medical plans, paid vacation and 401k contributions.

"I think it's super exciting," said the Salvation Army's Capt. Martin Ross. "We've got a huge labor shortage in this area, and this is a great way to expose companies to some great prospective employees."

The state's unemployment rate dropped to a record low 4.2 percent in April - and an even lower 3.4 percent in the Sacramento region, according to the state Employment Development Department. Employers are competing hard for workers, including a Chick-fil-A fast food restaurant in Sacramento County offering $17 to $18 per hour.

Many of the men and women looking for jobs have little work experience, Ross said, and some have backgrounds that include homelessness and addiction. But all have completed recovery and job training programs that have put them on the path to success, he said.

"Their old story doesn't have to be their future story," said Ross. "Their addictive behaviors are six months to a year behind them, and they deserve consideration from employers. Instead of putting people back into a position where they are causing mischief, breaking into houses and cars and using drugs, why not give them a job?"

Sacramento's Twin Rivers Unified School District typically has about 100 classified positions, from bus drivers to janitorial workers, open at any given time, said human resources director David Robertson, who attended the event.

"Many of these people have children in our district, and we want people to be employed," he said. Applicants must pass criminal background and other checks, he said. "But there are qualified applicants everywhere."

An hour into Friday's event, "we've already got a couple of people who are very interesting to us," Robertson said.

Reeva Keene has a degree in graphic design, but has been unable to find work since losing her home last year. She has completed a construction training program through the Salvation Army, she said, and was leaving all options open as she walked from table to table at the job fair.

She wore a business suit and scarf, and talked enthusiastically with potential employers. "I really like working with people, and I'm trying to let my personality shine through," she said.

Kimberly McDaniel has been unemployed and has gone through bouts of homelessness since she was laid off by a communications company in 2012. She suffers from severe vertigo that limits her ability to do certain work, she said, but needs a job to supplement her disability income and support her child.

"I have professional work experience," she said. "I'm trying to find an employer who can accommodate me."

Rigor said she has been homeless off and on the past five years. During that time, she said, she took classes at Sacramento State, often sleeping in study hall and showering at The Well, the university's recreation center. She is on track to graduate in the fall. Recently, she got a home through a government program designed to curb homelessness.

"But I need a job to keep my housing," she said. The job fair gave her hope that she might find something soon.

"I'm a person that could really help a company with consumer service," Rigor said, if only someone would give her a chance.

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