A Labor Day Look at Homeless People and Work

The tool I use for this blog gives me a running account of my most-viewed posts. The list almost always includes one or both of two posts I wrote a long time ago on homeless people and work.

In both cases, the headlines — the first (and more popular especially) — might seem to announce posts that said people wouldn’t be homeless if they’d just get off their butts and find jobs. Followers know I’d never argue that.

Why Don’t Homeless People Just Get a Job?” cites some obstacles to employment homeless people face because they’re homeless, e.g., difficulties keeping clothes (and self) clean, conflicts between work schedules and shelter access hours.

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.

Labor Day week seems a good time for another crack at the issues. One I haven’t dealt with is how many homeless people one could reasonably expect to work. The other, which I have, is obstacles. I’ll confine myself to a couple that I’ve come to understand better.

Uncounted Who May Work and Counted Who Probably Can’t

First off, we have an uncounted number of homeless people who are living doubled up with friends or relatives and others who are sheltering themselves in cheap motels. We’ve no idea how many are working.

Some of the counted, as I’ve said before, do work. We’ve no recent data on how many nationwide. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t include them in its annual reports.

In the Washington metro area, 26% of single adults, i.e., those who didn’t have children in their care, and 37% of adults in families, i.e., those that did, were reportedly employed last January. But employed apparently means had some income from work, not steady work for pay.

These are only those counted who acknowledged income from work. Some might have chosen not to — because they don’t have legal authority to work, for example.

Second, some of the counted are not only officially homeless, but chronically so. That means, among other things, that they have at least one disability. Not all qualifying disabilities absolutely preclude work of any sort, but some surely do.

Third, a higher portion of officially homeless people nationwide are now at least 50 years old. Some have been homeless for years and have disabilities, but not all. If the technically work-able “older” folks aren’t working now, they’ll face the same barrier to employment that older job-seekers do generally.

Lastly (at least for now), homelessness takes a toll on the body — as, of course, does advancing age. So someone who’s not so disabled as to qualify for Social Security benefits could be unable to do work requiring physical strength and stamina, but without the skills and work history for a desk job.

Criminal Records Revisited

I noted before that homeless people, like others face a formidable barrier to work if they have a criminal record. But it’s more complex than I knew back then.

On the one hand, people may be homeless because of their criminal record — and thus also disadvantaged in job searches by the other complications that have no stable housing entails.

Convictions for certain crimes bar people from public housing and deny them federal housing vouchers. Private-sector landlords can reject any tenant they choose, including those with criminal records, provided they’re not demonstrably screening out racial minorities or others covered by our civil rights laws.

As you probably know by now, a criminal record doesn’t necessarily indicate conviction of a crime. Not-guilty verdicts — even arrests that don’t lead to trials — create criminal records too.

Not all public housing authorities — and probably even fewer private-sector landlords — make this distinction. Doubtful most employers do, though “ban the box” laws limit sweeping exclusions in a handful of states, the District of Columbia and about two dozen local jurisdictions.

On the other hand, homelessness may result in a criminal record for violating any one of the various laws local governments have passed to get homeless people off the streets. Perhaps out of their communities too.

The laws mostly license police officers to hustle homeless people off park benches, out of wherever they’ve parked the car they’re sleeping in, etc. But the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty, which specializes in these laws, reports arrests and even time in jail.

The National Health Care for the Homeless Council cites research linking homelessness, incarceration and certain disabling conditions, e.g., substance abuse, mental illness. So a barrier to work that leads to homelessness becomes another when the temporarily housed in jails or prisons are released.

Proof of Work Eligibility

Federal law requires employers to ensure that people they hire are legally authorized to work. Americans who don’t have passports must show them another document with a photo, plus, in most cases, proof of a Social Security number.

But homeless people may not have them, even if they once did. And if they don’t, they may not be able to get them.

A man in one of the outdoor camps the District government has since cleared out says he woke up one morning to find that the bag with all his identification documents had been stolen. Not an unusual plight.

Homeless people may also lose their photo ID and/or Social Security card when public workers confiscate their bundles or backpacks as part of one of those clear-outs. Or they may simply drop their wallets, distracted perhaps by the need to keep moving around, with all their worldly belongings.

We securely housed people lose our wallets too, of course — or have them stolen. But we can readily replace our photo IDs because we’ve got a fixed address, proof it’s ours and the money to pay for a replacement — for the required copy of our birth certificate too, if we don’t already have one.

Well, you need a photo ID to get a new Social Security card. And getting the ID poses problems for homeless and other poor people, as I’ve written before. I focused on the District’s requirements. But the proofs, though not the fee apply everywhere.

Homeless people face other barriers to legal work, I’m sure — not necessarily barriers unique to them, just as some I’ve covered aren’t. I’ve said nothing about race discrimination, for example.

I’d welcome input for yet another crack at this topic.

2 Responses to A Labor Day Look at Homeless People and Work

  1. BrookeM says:

    For many years now, my husband and I have been following the plight of ex-felons attempting to find housing and work. My husband spent about 8 years leading a weekly bible study in a felony pod at our local jail–long enough to get to know men well, watch them be sent off to prison and then be contacted by them once they were released. We’ve been involved first-hand in trying to help them with the employment and housing obstacles described here. The barriers to successful reemergence into society are huge! As I’m reading your article, I’m sitting outside the home my husband and I recently bought at auction and fixed up. A man with a past felony charge (drugs) is moving in on Saturday with his mother (at a significantly low monthly rent). It is our first venture (longed dreamed of) into being a tangible solution to the problem for someone. I know we need large scale solutions, too, but there are definitely ways for individuals to play a role in lightening these obstacles so many people (not just ex-felons, but single moms, the disabled, etc…) face.

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    This is a heartening story. And it makes an important point. We as individuals can’t solve the problems so many ex-offenders have, but we can do something. Providing work for one of them and then a home for him and his mother is more than just something!

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