Ken Bennett, regional representative of the U.S. Secretary of Labor, Matthew McFarland, I-Work employment coordinator for Housing Options, Debbie A. Bretag, executive director of Housing Options, and Randy Usen, board member of Housing Options and chair of the I-Work advisory committee.

Housing Options held a kick-off event for its I-Work program at Boocoo Cultural Center on March 9. Housing Options has provided supportive housing to persons with a mental illness in Evanston for more than 20 years. The new I-Work program expands its services to include a supportive employment program that helps persons recovering from mental illness to achieve competitive employment in the community.

The I-Work program will offer immediate job placement assistance and on-the-job support to Housing Options’ residents and its non-residential clients. The program is expected to serve 20 to 25 clients in its first year and 30 to 50 clients in subsequent years.

Housing Options’ executive director, Debbie A. Bretag, said, “The guiding principle of Housing Options is people can and do recover from mental illness. Everyone does better when they’re employed. This program is about putting people to work in a competitive job.”

Matthew McFarland, I-Work employment coordinator for Housing Options, said the program operates in a much different way than a traditional job program. He said everyone is viewed as having a set of marketable skills. When a client is accepted in the program, Housing Options will assist in a rapid job search for a competitive job that in a realistic way matches the client’s skills and interests. A dedicated employment specialist will assist the client through the application process and will continue to provide on-the-job support as long the client desires help, he said.

Mr. McFarland emphasized the program is not about providing low-wage or sheltered employment; it is providing competitive job opportunities in the community.

“There’s a lot of evidence to support this supportive employment model,” said Ms. Bretag. She said the success rate is over 60 percent, compared to 22 percent for traditional job programs. “We are very confident we can match or exceed that high rate of success.”

“Part of recovery and wellness is taking increased personal responsibility and living as independently as possible,” added Ms. Bretag. “Supported employment in a competitive job provides an individual with the opportunity to take more personal responsibility, promotes independence, and fosters competence—things we all strive for in our lives.”

Randy Usen, a member of Housing Options board and chair of the I-Work advisory committee, said Housing Options is building relationships with businesses and not-for-profit organizations in the community that can provide competitive jobs.

About 12 employers have expressed great interest in the program, Ms. Bretag told the RoundTable. Representatives of six employers attended the event at Boocoo.

Terrell Kennedy of Prime Pro Services, a commercial cleaning business that is participating in the program, said, “You have to give people an opportunity to live again.”

Ken Bennett, regional representative for the U.S. Secretary of Labor who attended the event, said, “I love the fact there are strong advocates for people who need help. … Everyone should have a job, and not just a job, a good job.”

On behalf of the Secretary of Labor and President Barack Obama, he congratulated the persons seeking employment through the I-Work program, the employers who expressed interest in participating in the program, and Housing Options. Before assuming the post of regional representative for the Secretary of Labor, Mr. Bennett served in the White House as deputy assistant to President Obama.

Employers interested in participating in the I-WORK program may contact Matthew McFarland at (847) 866-6144, ext. 33, or

Larry Gavin, the author of this article, serves on the Housing Options advisory board.

Larry Gavin

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...