Soneli Bhadra’s job is to help other people find jobs. But when it comes time for a mock job interview, she will usually find someone else to pretend to be the stern would-be boss asking the questions.
“Everyone’s comfortable with me,” said Soneli, manager of employment services at Homestretch, a Northern Virginia charity that works with homeless families. “I’m kind of known as a cheerleader.”
What Soneli means is, clients have a hard time imagining her as anything other than a lifeline to meaningful employment.
Homestretch serves about 45 families at any one time. On the first day that a family enters the program — moving into their own fully furnished apartment — Soneli carves out 15 minutes for a quick introduction.
“Within a week or two we can really sit down and formulate a solid plan,” she said. “We start out talking about short-term goals and medium-range goals. Careers should always be growing. Everybody should have a career where they can learn more and get more opportunities.”
Unemployment and underemployment are often what contribute to a family’s slide into homelessness. Soneli’s discussion with clients sometimes includes a stark reality check: It will cost more to live in this area without public assistance than most clients think it will.
“The minimum wage is not a livable wage,” Soneli said. “It’s really shocking for a lot of people. I try to frame it in a way that’s not discouraging, so they can work with me to figure out an educational program so we can bump up that number and get in the ballpark.”
Soneli said many of her clients dream of a job that pays $10 an hour. It’s more than they’ve earned for most of their working life, but that, too, is far from sufficient to live in Fairfax County.
Education is one way to boost income, but even that can come with complications. Many Homestretch clients have started degree or certificate programs at for-profit institutions that have gone belly-up, leaving students with worthless, nontransferable credits. Other clients have piled up student debt.
That just makes Soneli’s job more of a challenge. She’s adept at finding scholarships and grants.
Some clients need more fundamental help. They don’t know where to begin.
“We do some interest inventories together, small personality-based quizzes that kind of give you direction and match you with job titles based on the results,” Soneli said.
A job is more than a paycheck. It’s the way many of us gauge our self-worth. The conversations that Soneli has with Homestretch clients — many of whom are single mothers who have fled abusive relationships — often resemble therapy sessions.
“So many people, especially women, come to us with such low self-esteem that we start out just talking about things that they feel they’re good at,” Soneli said. “Then we start turning that into a conversation about how we can apply that to work skills.”
It can take months to formulate a plan, longer to finish the vocational training needed to enter a trade, but eventually it’s time to look for work. Soneli helps clients craft résumés. She shows them which websites to scour for openings. She talks about how to fill out an application and when and how to follow up.
And she arranges those mock interviews, where clients can practice talking about their employment history, their skills, their ambitions. They can even practice making eye contact, a notion foreign to some of them, especially women from cultures where they were never expected to work outside the home.
A job interview can be confrontational. That’s why Soneli gets help from friends and colleagues who can present a more severe demeanor.
“I want clients to get used to somebody who’s not as therapeutic as I am” is the way she puts it.
In the end, of course, everyone walks into a job interview alone.
Recently, a Homestretch client stopped Soneli in the parking lot. The woman had had a difficult employment history, requiring all of Soneli’s many skills.
“She told me she had gotten hired for a job,” Soneli said. “She was so excited. This is really a big deal for her. She was just bubbling with enthusiasm.”
Said Soneli: “Those are the best days for me: Somebody calls me and says they got a job.”
Homestretch is a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand, our annual fundraising campaign. By giving to Homestretch, you can help future clients lift themselves out of homelessness. To give online, visit posthelpinghand.com. To donate by mail, make a check payable to “Homestretch” and send it to: Homestretch, 303 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church, VA 22046, Attn: Nan Monday.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.