Job Counselor Sets Up Shop in Shelters for Homeless
Ira Sokol, a job counselor for the homeless who sets up shop in the shelters instead of waiting for the homeless to come to him, gives hard-luck stories a chance for a happy ending.
In six months, the counselor for the state Department of Employment Security has found jobs for about 75 homeless people, including a laid-off steelworker and a former government bureaucrat who “spoke like a professor.”
“There’s great misconceptions dealing with these people,” Sokol said. “These are not bag people carrying wine bottles in a paper bag.”
“Some of them do have perhaps mental or drug or alcohol problems, some are just burned out of their homes,” Sokol said. Others find themselves out on the street because of domestic or financial problems.
But he believes most have job skills.
Loses His Business
One of Sokol’s clients is Gene Signorile, 52, owner of a small Chicago company that developed pet toys but went out of business last year. After a divorce, Signorile sold his home and lived with relatives before winding up in a homeless shelter several weeks ago.
Signorile said fighting the stereotype of a homeless bum has been tough, but Sokol has helped boost his morale and has provided him with several leads, including a manufacturing position with a $20,000 salary.
“Most people, when they think about the homeless, they disregard it and shrug their shoulders, because they think they’re uneducated . . . lazy, don’t want to work,” Signorile said.
“It is a nice thing to know that there’s people who do still care,” he said.
Acts as Liaison
Sokol, 46, is the department’s only job counselor who visits shelters, working at two North Side facilities one day a week. He acts as a liaison with businesses, setting up job interviews and listing his name as a contact since his clients have no permanent address.
He does not tell prospective employers that his clients are homeless, he said, because “that would be like sending up a red flag.”
Ed Cabin, director of a shelter run by a Jewish social-service agency, says more counselors like Sokol are needed.
“He comes to us and . . . it’s a more one-on-one, less office-like setting,” Cabin said. “Maybe for that reason people feel freer to talk.”
Short of Staff
But department spokeswoman Lynn Pierce said it is unlikely that the agency will dispatch other job counselors to shelters. “We commend Ira for his work,” she said, “but we just don’t have the staff to do that.”
Sokol, who got the idea of working at homeless shelters from a friend who worked at one, said he was hesitant at first because “I had the preconceptions and the misconceptions that society at large has.”
But after a while, “I found that these people are no different than anybody else.”
He has found a job for a former steelworker who was “very demoralized” after being laid off. The man now works as a fork-lift operator.
He also found a job for a government bureaucrat who quit his job.
“He spoke like a professor . . . but just could not get his act together,” Sokol said. “I got him a job doing telephone sales.”
But Sokol said his biggest reward is more than finding jobs. It’s “just seeing somebody have their self-respect restored and giving them a chance.