Barriers to permanent housing can take many forms. With a new program, Federal Way nonprofit FUSION is creating opportunities to break down one more.
The vision for the Food Education and Service Training program (FEAST) is to provide a pathway to stable employment, according to FUSION Executive Director David Harrison. The program is in its early stages and already boasts one graduate who may have been the one to fill your most recent deli order from the Fred Meyer store in Twin Lakes.
FUSION operates a family shelter, a fleet of 25 single family homes for transitional housing, a boutique and a cafe whose profits benefit the rest of their programs. Their mission is “to provide housing and support services to families experiencing homelessness in our community so they will have a safe, secure environment as they work toward self-sufficiency.”
Jonathan Verbiscar is the first graduate of the training program. He already had over seven years of experience as a cook, but had become stuck in a cycle of challenges with his wife and daughter that left them homeless.
Verbiscar and his family entered the FUSION housing program that helps families become stable, save for the future and ultimately find permanent housing on a 6- to 12-month timeline. He said he was then offered the opportunity to be part of FUSION’s first test of their new plan to provide job skills in the food industry.
FEAST operates out of Poverty Bay Cafe and Bakery, 1108 S. 322nd Place in Federal Way. The program focuses on food skills, but also on the customer service and life skills that can make or break steady employment. The program is mirrored off of FareStart’s blueprint in Seattle.
For Verbiscar, he said that both programs have been life changing: “I couldn’t say enough nice things about either program,” he said of the housing and job skills programs.
Verbiscar said there were two ways the program helped him break out of the cycle he was stuck in. The first was that he had always worked in the back of house in the kitchen and was wary of working with customers. Being pushed to try the front of house expanded his skillset and what jobs he might be open to working, he said.
“I realized that it’s not a problem to work with a customer. In fact, I enjoy handling and making sure that their needs are met. And if there’s a problem, I enjoy solving it for the customer,” Verbiscar said.
Another aspect that helped him find stability was that the flexibility and understanding he was shown with his family obligations. He said that helped him take steps that allowed him show up more consistently.
While it may seem counterintuitive that allowing someone to call out of work could help them achieve consistent work attendance, for Verbiscar, experiencing compassion and job stability was what he needed to get there.
“It is absolutely priceless to have a boss understand that if my child is sick and I have no one to watch her, then I can’t come in today,” Verbiscar said. “Without the pressure of worrying, am I going to lose my job if I can’t come in one day next week, it actually helped me build a better sense of security in my work place.”
With the combination of childcare and newly acquired customer service skills, Verbiscar was more open to opportunities he would have never considered, including his current role in the deli at Fred Meyer.
“I would’ve never thought in a million years that I’m a union member with benefits,” Verbiscar said. That alone is “absolutely surprising.”
“I find it extremely fulfilling going in every day and seeing the same coworkers,” Verbiscar said, noting that many people he works with have worked there for years. “I’ve built a little community at my work, which makes a big difference.”
Verbiscar said that his wife also started working at the store at the same time as he did and “that’s been amazing.”
“You fall down enough times, it’s hard to get back up,” Verbiscar said. “When someone steps up and wants to help you, it really changes you. For the better, I think.”
When asked why the food industry specifically can be a good avenue into employment, FUSION director David Harrison said one of many reasons is that it relates to a personal passion.
“I spent part of my career in the food service industry before making some career changes,” Harrison said, “so I know that working in food service can be a living wage with transferable skills that’s always in high demand. So if you want to help the most people, this is a good way to do it.”
Harrison added that the program isn’t just for people who want a lifelong career in food.
“It doesn’t mean you have to spend the rest of your life working in a restaurant, right? But it’s a good way to get reemployed, get back into the workforce,” he said. “Going to work every day, earning a paycheck and being part of the community” can all give a person a “a certain amount of self-esteem and fulfillment.”
Next steps for FEAST
FEAST has so far had one graduate and is looking for others who might benefit from their program. Right now the program is only looking at families in the transitional housing program for applicants because it is seen as a natural fit.
This quarter, Harrison said they plan to focus on finalizing the curriculum for the program and collaborating with potential employers to make sure skill building aligns with local job openings.
The program focuses on building skills, but also comes with accountability and responsibility. The other participant that has been part of the program did not graduate from it and had to be let go from Poverty Bay Cafe, Harrison said.
This could be considered a negative thing, but Harrison and FUSION Transitional Housing Program Case Manager Stephanie Barnes said it all depends on how you look at it. For some, the opportunity to make mistakes in a supportive environment can be a chance to make a better choice next time.
“Our number one goal is to not return people to homelessness,” Harrison said. “In the public sector, if you got fired, that may result in you being homeless again.” Getting let go from FEAST wouldn’t have that same impact for participants who are also enrolled in the housing program, Harrison explained. Instead, this experience could provide a consequence without removing the support of the transitional housing program in general. In this way, the person can keep receiving help “to move forward with setting goals” while case managers are also “holding you accountable.”
The individual who did not complete the program has since found another job, and Barnes is hopeful that the experience gained during their time at FEAST will help things turn out differently this time.
FUSION helped 150 families last year through its shelter and transitional housing programs, and 100 percent of the participants in their transitional housing programs have successfully obtained permanent housing for the past two years.
Barnes has been the case manager for almost all of them, supporting families with setting financial, employment and housing goals — then meeting them. For Barnes, she said that it’s a joy when “they’re receptive to the help that is offered to them, when they take full advantage of it in a good way and grow with it. That’s what we like to see. It hurts when people are not able to do that.”