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

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.


18 Responses to Why Homeless People Aren’t Working … Or Working And Homeless Anyway

  1. […] more recent post takes a deeper dive into the issues addressed here. Please take a look at this and let me know what […]

  2. Linda says:

    Having “been there, done that” on the streets of Marin County, California, I actually find this question on the humorous side. Unfortunately those who have never experienced homelessness have no idea how it impacts a person. The sheer terror of not having a place to lay your head is bad enough, but the emotional impact of being labeled “homeless” is debilitating. Fortunately there are a couple of places where I was, that would allow you to take showers and wash your clothes. This doesn’t happen for everyone. You must sneak, yes sneak, into a restroom at a gas station or fast food restaurant to wash and brush your teeth. The persons who are mentally challenged on the streets is overwhelming. The government is just cutting these poor souls loose. They use their meds up, sell them or trade them, because there is no one to dispense or oversee them. Actually if you aren’t a bit challenged when you become homeless you definitely are after a couple of months. Who is going to hire someone with no address? Much less clean credit, clean record, etc.??? Living on the street sucks you into a certain mentality, and it is very hard to get out. People up there on the pedestals of economic security cannot understand the plight of the homeless. I was one of those persons before it happened to me. After two years, I was able to focus and get my life back. But it was a hellish two years, and I never want to forget the humility during that time in my life. I NEVER pass up a person asking for a dollar without giving them what I can. It doesn’t matter to me what they spend it on, I know it will help them get through another hour.

    DON’T JUDGE…it could be you tomorrow.

  3. Sarel Rowe says:

    Thank you so much for this blog. I linked it to my fbook page, Urban Poverty News.

  4. D says:

    Funny thing about this question is when your in the shelter they want you to take whatever job you can or go to school. I had a job before I got here paying $8.25. I lost my place then lost my job. Either way its not enough to pay rent and take care of 4 children. I thought about school but how am i gonna pay back the loans plus most programs want you working. So I am stuck between the two. Take a job that pays me barely enough because there is no way I can afford a three bedroom full market rate rent apartment on a minimum wage salary. Or go to school then hope I can get a job when Im finished. Then most jobs want you to have at least 2 – 3 years experience. I just want to take care of my children, provide for their needs, and not be on goverment assistance. Sometimes I think Im asking to much. Whenever I get out of DCG and into my own maybe I can figure out why I was homeless and not working.

  5. Great article. Thanks for sharing. It is an awful statement about the times when 49% of the homeless have full time jobs and still can’t pay the rent.

  6. Kathryn Baer says:

    Glad you found the post useful. The figure you’re citing is much higher than any I’ve seen. I’d appreciate knowing where you found it.

  7. This is my 4th hypothermia season and I am 55 and female. My profession for 35 years was sys admin work. Aside from physical disabilities that has impaired my ability to keep work, I find age is a factor. Also globalization. Knowing a second language. English is not always the predominate language in a work place with some employers.
    An interesting story… I was in Silicon Valley from 1994 through 2003. During the recession I was sitting at a Workforce center and a woman came in from one of the local hotels in Palo Alto and said they needed some extra people temporarily to clean rooms for a convention coming to town. Another woman and I took the job. When we got there we were the only two who did not speak spanish. The women there asked us lots of personal questions and could not understand why we would want to do this type of work. Both of us found out several days later that they thought we were from the INS.

  8. Kathryn Baer says:

    An interesting story indeed. I don’t know much about the language issue, except in connection with certain highly-specialized jobs.

    I do know–from both personal experience and research–that age is a significant barrier. In fact, I wrote about it awhile ago. You can find the post here:

  9. When you are homeless you can’t easily shower, eat, sleep or find long-term, permanent and full-time employment. This does not include such things as doing laundry which is almost impossible. This is why homeless simply throw away clothes.

    People are homeless because they have been rejected. It can be rejection from a family violence situation, rejection from job applications. There needs to be a lot more LOVE and a lot less HATE for the homeless.

    Most homeless will not tell you their life story or situation if you appear to be some yuppie who has a nice warm house to sleep in, happy family memories or douche cars and other toys to play with. Look at Africa. Do they have iPods and $4/gal. gas and a Lexus with breast implants?

    Hopefully that made you laugh. You see … homeless men cannot become un-homeless unless they find permanent full time employment. All housing that is available is not “free because you are homeless” housing it is “appropriate and affordable” which mean you have to have a job. If you don’t have a job, were rejected for a job or cannot find a job because there ARE no jobs you will be homeless forever.

    My name is Doug and I was/will probably be again homeless, and that’s ok! These yuppie douche politicians need to get over themselves and sleep in the dirt for a few years instead of figuring out how to please Satan best. Visit my website and refer me for jobs so I don’t become homeless again … thanks.

  10. Wakjob says:

    People don’t get a job because America has been FLOODED with MILLIONS of 3rd worlders who hate us who are now in our companies and who will not hire Americans. Kind of hard to get a job when the hiring manager across the desk is some kind of America-hating Indian who has a centuries-old grudge against white people because of Britain’s colonization of India 200 years ago.

  11. I admire you guys and I wish I had a company and I would hire everyone of you. I was homeless myself and I know how hard it is to get back on your feet. We are all a paycheck from being homeless and some people do not realize that. We need to get together as a unit and help as many people that we can. I try to help out as much as I can, I donate clothes and I feed whenever I can. I do not have much but I do not like to see anyone go hungry, I will share whatever I have. I pray everyday that this situation will end soon. I ask you guys that is homeless out there don’t give up, pray and your prayers will be answered, mine did.

  12. Kathryn Baer says:

    This is an important message—especially perhaps at the holiday season, when giving is on our minds. We can all, I think, do something to help others in need, even if we’re in need ourselves. It’s first and foremost a matter of recognizing our common humanity.

  13. Kathryn Baer says:

    You’re obviously very frustrated, Wakjob. And I can hardly blame you. I know from my own job searches, that getting rejected stirs up all sorts of negative emotions. Some feel hopeless and depressed. Others angry. You’re apparently in the latter group. That said, what you’re saying is bigoted and untrue.

    And I’ll tell you something. You’ll improve your prospects if you overcome your hostility. Interviewers may pick up on bad vibes and decide that you won’t work well with other members of their team.

  14. db says:

    Ms. Kathryn Baer, you need to respectfully wake up a little bit about this issue:

    These people who come here on alphabet soup labor visas mostly engage in credential/resume fraud. It has been exposed by DHS and ICE in a report entitled H-1B Benefit Fraud & Compliance Assessment published 2008. New grads cannot compete against this foreign labor as mostly they are always given preference. Once the visa holders get into HR they only hire their own nationality. It is a major issue.

    What Wakjob is saying unfortunately is the plain simple truth. Just because you have not experienced it does not mean it is not happening. I can tell you right now defacto what he explained is 100% happening and it is a serious circumstance for unemployed or homeless engineers. Please understand.

    The American Programmers Association has in the past published essays and books concerning the engineers who were displaced by foreign nations as guest workers — subsequently becoming homeless and then committing suicide. This information is not a fabrication it is literally happening as we speak.

  15. Kathryn Baer says:

    I have no doubt that some H-1B visa holders are displacing qualified citizens (and green card holders) from jobs that require high-level technical skills. This is not their fault. Recall that it’s employers who initiate the process of securing H-1B visas.

    Your claim that people who come to this country with such visas “mostly engage in credential/resume fraud” is a different matter. According to the report you reference, 10 of the 146 petitions reviewed were found to involve fraudulent documents. That’s 4% of the total.

    So frankly, I think you’re scapegoating. But I do understand why you and Wakjob feel angry and frustrated.

  16. Amanda Apps says:

    How can I get into a soup kitchen in Adelaide because I really wanna help 🙂

  17. […] on. But they’re relatively abstract, while the reasons homeless people don’t work or do work and remain homeless are ultimately unique, notwithstanding the broad-brush treatment in the earlier posts I’ve […]

  18. […] “Why Homeless People Aren’t Working … Or Are Working and Homeless Anyway” focuses mainly on challenges that aren’t unique to homeless people, e.g., the unfavorable ratio of job-seekers to jobs, education requirements, work-related costs, background checks. […]

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