Back to School: The Link Between School, Employment, and Homelessness



Every Fall, the start of a new school year signals a shift in daily life for all of us. For students, it means leaving behind a life of freedom—months’ worth of free time, vacations, perhaps a brief but memorable summer romance—and trading it for one of routine that, after a week or two, will feel like it never ended in the first place. For those who have already completed their schooling, it typically means longer lines getting our morning coffee and another 20 minutes added to our commute to work. Admittedly, the latter is a less jarring shift, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way when I’m sitting at a standstill on the 95 at 7:00 am. In any case, being affected by the start of the school year is virtually inescapable.


Here at Breaktime, though, what’s equally inescapable is the awareness of those who aren’t going back to school, of those who didn’t, those who couldn’t. In working with young adults experiencing homelessness, it’s often the case that one or more individuals within a given cohort don’t have a high school diploma. Just in 2022, 39% of the young adults Breaktime worked with fell into this category. The reasons for this are unique to the individual, but the challenge it presents to them is the same: in a competitive market, how do you find employment?


This is particularly the case here in Massachusetts, where roughly 91% of residents have a high school diploma or higher. On top of that, the Bay State has the largest percentage of residents with a Bachelor’s degree or higher of any state in the nation. In this type of environment, simply entering the workforce can seem nearly impossible.


Historically, Breaktime has attempted to alleviate this situation for our young adult Associates through our three-week Launchpad program—where Associates learn essential job skills—and our 13-week Liftoff program, where those same Associates are placed in paid roles at one of our local site partners. The hope, of course, being that this would help them gain real-life work experience and facilitate their pursuit of more schooling or obtaining a full-time job. Based on our results so far, this does seem to be an effective tool. 83% of Breaktime alumni are fully employed and/or pursuing further education after our program.


The reality is, though, that this is not and can not be a cure-all. Our station in life is made up of a thousand different threads, each connecting together like a spiderweb. If any individual thread is cut or missing, then the whole structure becomes less stable. So, while focusing on providing work experience is important and will remain an integral part of our program, we also realize that addressing only one factor out of many can sometimes feel like using a hair dryer to fight a hurricane. In many cases, the high school diploma, or an equivalent, requirement needs to be fulfilled in order to qualify for employment. This thread needs to be weaved through to provide more stability.


That is why we’ve recently started assisting those of our young adult Associates who don’t have a high school diploma in studying for and obtaining their HiSET (High School Equivalency Test) credential. While still in its early stages, the program has already seen success. As we continue to implement it further, the hope is that we can reach the point where having solid academic credentials and work experience is no longer an either/or proposition for any of our young adult Associates. Connecting those threads stabilizes the entire structure.


So, the start of a new school year will always be a time of transition for all of us. Students will make the shift from leisure to study, those overseas adventures and summer romances will end, and I will—begrudgingly—sit in traffic on my way Downtown. But we will keep working toward reaching the point where, when we walk into the Breaktime office, more and more of our young adult Associates also experience a transition: from being those who won’t go back to school, those who didn’t to those who will, those who did.


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