Why Homeless People Aren’t Working … Or Working And Homeless Anyway

November 21, 2011

The tool I use to produce this blog provides some interesting stats — among them, my most-viewed posts. I note, with interest, that an old post makes the top-viewed list almost every week.

It’s entitled “Why Don’t Homeless People Just Get a Job?” Are people actually asking this, I wonder.

At the time I wrote, the recession was in full swing. Now it’s officially 29 months behind us. Yet we’re facing a big jobs crisis.

Not Enough Jobs

The unemployment rate is higher — stuck at about 9%. The number of jobless people actively looking has increased from 13.2 million to nearly 13.9 million.

And the economy has shed about 1.3 million more jobs. It would need to create more than 11 million to bring the unemployment rate back down to when the recession set in.

So one reason homeless people don’t get jobs is the same as the reason millions of housed people don’t. There just aren’t enough jobs out there.

But, of course, it’s not that simple.

Challenges to Getting the Jobs Out There

The very fact of homelessness makes work searches more challenging. Blogger Steve Samra — the source for my original post — speaks from first-hand experience about these.

But, as with the current job shortage, the biggest challenges, I think, aren’t unique to homeless people. They have to do with the reason people are homeless to begin with, i.e., not enough income to pay for a roof over their heads.

For some, there are barriers to gaining — and maintaining — employment of any kind. These include mental and physical health problems, substance abuse and other severe disabilities.

For those not too disabled to work, finding a job and then going to it may cost more than they can pay.

There are up-front and ongoing transportation costs. For some, also formidable child care costs and/or the also formidable costs of home care services for disabled family members who can’t get them through Medicaid.

And then there’s the big issue of job requirements.

Many communities have passed laws to clear homeless people off the streets — possibly away altogether. So homeless job seekers may have criminal records for loitering, storing belongings on public property, etc.

The National Employment Law Project reports that many employers are running criminal background checks to screen out applicants — even for entry-level jobs that involve negligible security risks. Others post job announcements that pre-screen.

And now applicants are being screened out because of bad credit records — an ironic Catch-22 for people who are trying to get work that will enable them to pay their bills.

Last but certainly not least is the issue of education credentials.

The monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics reports consistently show the highest unemployment rates for adult job seekers with less than a high school diploma or GED. Rates drop at each education level — down to a current 4.4% for those with a bachelors degree or higher.

We read that college graduates are accepting jobs as wait staff, truck drivers, sales clerks and the like. That’s tough competition for those who traditionally fill these jobs.

Working, But Still Homeless

Yet some fraction of homeless people are working. No national figure. So a little back-of-the-envelope from my hometown.

According to last January’s homeless count, 38% of homeless adults in families and 20% of single adults in the Washington, D.C. metro area were working.

No way of knowing how many of them were working full time or at what. We do know, however, that a full-time minimum wage job in the District, where the hourly rate is $1 higher than the federal minimum, would yield an annual take-home income of a little under $16,440.*

Rent on a modest one-bedroom apartment, including basic utilities would leave the worker with about $44.00 per month for all other expenses — less than the costs of bus fare to and home from a five-day a week job.

In short, we’ve got a complex of policy issues here — jobs, income supports, anti-homelessness laws, hiring practices, education, affordable housing and a minimum wage that’s worth less than it was 40 years ago.

There, Googlers. Aren’t you glad you asked? I am.

* This reflects deductions for Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes at the current reduced rate, but not what might be withheld for income taxes.


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