There are many assumptions about homeless people. Perhaps the most common is that they are too lazy to work. Having been there myself and having worked with many others in the same situation, I have to say that for the vast majority of homeless people, the assumption that they are lazy is dead wrong.
Many homed people look at the horrible lives of people living on the streets and ask why on earth a person wouldn’t do something to help themselves in that situation. They ask, “Why don’t they just get jobs?” Oddly enough, they don’t seem to also wonder if jobs are available and if there are any barriers to getting a job without having a home or an address. “Why can’t homeless people get jobs?” is a much better question.
- They don’t have addresses, and most employers require addresses. This is a lose-lose situation: They can’t get a place to live until they get a job, but can’t get a job until they get a place to live. The lack of an address can be a huge obstacle to finding work. Many do not have a mailing address they can use on job applications or have the address to a PO box, church, or mission to use. Employers are put off by irregular addresses on job applications. Don’t kid yourself; many employers would never consider a homeless person for a job opening. They have the same misconceptions about them that everyone else does.
- Many homeless people do not have reliable phones, and this becomes an obstacle to employment. Even if they have a phone, they might not always have a way to charge it. It’s hard to even have a charged mobile phone without somewhere to plug it in. Most employers won’t even bother to figure out how to contact an applicant without a phone. This makes having a $25 pay-as-you-go phone a life saver for many.
- It’s hard to stay clean and neat when you’re homeless, and most employers require grooming. The standard of cleanliness required of job applicants or employees can be unattainable for some. I’ve seen the suggestion that people just don’t try hard enough to stay clean and well-groomed, but do you honestly think that you could show up to a job interview with a tidy haircut, a pressed suit and tie, shined shoes, a shower-fresh smell, and a clean shave without a home?
- Many have gaps in their employment history, which is something that employers are suspicious about. Employment gaps are unsurprising considering that such gaps in employment are often the cause of their homelessness. But still, most applications require an explanation for all gaps in employment.
- They have criminal records as a result of their homelessness (and sometimes, their only crime was not having a place to sleep). Homelessness, itself, is often a crime. In many cities in America, the state of being homeless is inherently illegal, so getting a criminal record is inevitable if one has nowhere to live in those areas. While some people on the street do commit crimes, sometimes their only crime is being without a place to sleep. It often doesn’t take long for them to get criminal records without doing anything wrong. Charges for loitering, trespassing, unauthorized camping, or for falling asleep in a place not designated as a residence are common.
- Some, not all are disabled. Many people with mental or physical disabilities end up on the street. Whether physically or mentally ill, many homeless people are disabled by their illnesses.
- Addiction might play a part. Addictions prevent them from looking for work and from getting hired. Many employers assume homeless people are addicts. Not all homeless people are addicted to drugs, but most people believe that they are, including employers. Most people think this is the major reason homeless people don’t get jobs, and it may be true for many chronically homeless people. Addictions prevent them from looking for work and from getting hired. However, the perception that all homeless people are drug-addicted criminals is possibly a greater barrier to their employment than actual drug addiction is. There’s no doubt that addiction causes many people to remain homeless, but it is by no means the reason all homeless people are without homes or why they are not working.
- Many have jobs already. Despite having a job, people still can still lose their homes or be unable to afford housing. (Remember the employee, Yeweinishet Mesfin, who spent seven of the 10 years she worked at Disneyland living in her car, never told anyone out of shame. Her family and friends only discovered this when the 61-year-old woman was found dead in her “home.”)One reason someone without housing may not be looking for a job is that he or she may already have a job or two already. Approximately a third to one half of the homeless population is employed. Despite having a job, people can still lose their homes or be unable to afford housing.
During the current economic situation, and with so many people un-housed due to mortgage foreclosures, in some cities well over half of the homeless population has jobs. Nationwide, the employment rate is about 44% for people without homes. Keeping in mind how many are elderly, children, disabled, or mentally ill that’s a pretty high percentage.