Foundation grant offers employment skills to homeless in Western Mass.

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HOLYOKE -- Denise Rios wanted nothing more in life than to be an EMT, to help save the lives of others. There was one major problem, however. She was homeless.

Originally from Puerto Rico, Rios moved around several times trying to find an opportunity to learn the necessary skills to receive her license as a paramedic, but everywhere she went, the jobs and education weren't available to her.

Then she moved to Western Massachusetts with her children and her fiancé. They were placed in a family shelter in Holyoke.

The situation seemed bleak, she said, but there was light at the end of her journey.

She found a path through the Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation, which created a pilot project called Secure Jobs Connect, to help homeless families achieve the necessary job skills and training to get a job that could sustain a living wage.

Rios was given a scholarship to attend Holyoke Community College and pursue her dream.

"It gave me that hope," she said at a press conference Tuesday at the campus. "That I wanted to keep walking forward for my life and for my kids. I feel blessed every day."

There are more than 3,000 homeless families in the state, many with the same story as Rios.

Pamela Schwartz, director of the Western Massachusetts Network to End Homelessness, said the pilot could be a way for many more families to gain employment and escape homelessness.

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On Tuesday, Schwartz said that the Fireman Charitable Foundation has given a $300,000 grant to launch the pilot project across Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties.

"This is the single greatest case to end homelessness," Schwartz said. "Already families are closer to employment and sustaining a home."

Funding will help connect the families in greatest need with child care providers, transportation to and from work or job training, and provide sustainable housing, she said.

Schwartz said each business that has a candidate in the Secure Jobs Connect project placed on its payroll will have either 50 percent of the employee's gross pay reimbursed for on-the-job training, or an hourly rate can be negotiated and the SJC will absorb the cost of payroll taxes, workers' compensation and liability insurance for the first four weeks.

Aaron Gornstein, undersecretary of the state Department of Housing and Community Development, said the project has already made a great impact in lessening the number of homeless families.

"It's not just about providing a roof over someone's head, but to get them the proper job training and the ability to sustain it," he said. "We want to reduce the number of families living in the hotels and motels and we have. Since July 1, there's been a 45 percent reduction in Western Massachusetts from 500 to 283. We're going to get down to zero as soon as possible."

Heriberto Flores, president and CEO of Corporation for Public Management, which helps connect people with training opportunities and jobs, and a former chairman of Holyoke Community College, said he knows firsthand how investment in people can return large dividends.

Flores was on a state-welfare program 20 years ago, but said he used his opportunity to the fullest.

"I had nothing, but the city of Springfield invested in me, and I was chairman of a college," he said. "Imagine the possibilities. Someone may be homeless today, but could be president of this college. We just have to work together."


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