Urban Wire Why Is It So Hard for People Experiencing Homelessness to “Just Go Get a Job?”
Maureen Sarver
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For many people experiencing homelessness, a commonly heard refrain is: “Why don’t you just go get a job?” This question stems from the misconception that homelessness and unemployment go hand-in-hand, with the assumption that if someone were to find employment, they would lift themselves out of homelessness. Unfortunately, employment doesn’t automatically end homelessness, nor is finding employment simple or easy for people experiencing homelessness.

It’s now more evident than ever that homelessness is the result of failed policies that have perpetuated inequitable access to quality education, health care, and economic opportunity and that communities with rapidly increasing housing costs have faced the brunt of the homelessness crisis. There aren’t enough housing units to meet existing need, so the most vulnerable are often locked out of housing when people have to compete for a limited number of units. In July, the National Low Income Housing Coalition reported that there was not a single state where a worker earning a full-time minimum wage salary could afford a modest two-bedroom apartment.

A recent study found that 53 percent of adults sleeping in homeless shelters and 40 percent of people sleeping on the street or other places not intended for sleeping were employed during the same year they had experienced homelessness. Even when people are employed, their incomes still aren’t high enough to afford housing in short supply.

To address the systemic barriers that make it difficult for people experiencing homelessness to find and keep employment, homelessness response and workforce development systems should work together to target resources to help people find a stable job and stable housing.

People experiencing homelessness face barriers to obtaining and sustaining employment

For anyone seeking employment, there’s a shortage of good, quality jobs that meet workers’ needs and support their well-being, including their economic security. This shortage is the result of multiple factors, including decades of offshoring, wage stagnation, lack of benefits, and increasingly aggressive antiunion activity. But people experiencing homelessness also face their own barriers.

Studies have shown that poor health is associated with a higher risk of homelessness (PDF) and job loss, and conversely, homelessness can exacerbate poor health, as housing is a social determinant of health. With that said, many people with health conditions and disabilities can and do work but may need additional targeted supports.

Racial discrimination (PDF) can also pose a barrier to employment and economic mobility for people experiencing homelessness. In a recent study, people of color experiencing homelessness reported discrimination across education, employment, housing, health care, and criminal justice. When asked about employment, study participants discussed experiencing racial discrimination (PDF) most acutely when searching for jobs.

Basic requirements such as having an address, an ID, a birth certificate, and professional clothing are often out of reach or not easily obtainable for people experiencing homelessness. Lack of access to transportation and child care can also pose barriers to economic mobility for people with low incomes but disproportionately hinders those experiencing homelessness.

As a result of these and other barriers, people experiencing homelessness may have greater difficulty obtaining employment, completing transitional employment programs and job training, or pursuing education compared with people who are housed.

Addressing barriers to employment for those experiencing homelessness

Many federal, philanthropic, and social enterprise initiatives have invested funds to address these systemic barriers to employment. Several federal programs, for instance, were designed for specific populations that experience homelessness, such as the Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program, Reentry Project Grants (PDF), and Foster Youth to Independence (PDF).

The US Interagency Council on Homelessness, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Labor have encouraged communities to strengthen pathways to employment (PDF). Some states are creating multiagency strategic plans across multiple agencies, such as Maryland, which recently held its first Homelessness and Workforce Systems Symposium. Several states, including Kentucky, are exploring policy changes to mitigate or remove benefit cliffs.

Communities across the US have integrated employment assistance into their rapid re-housing programs (PDF) to help people secure permanent housing and develop or increase employment income. Local Continuums of Care and Workforce Boards are also collaborating to address barriers to employment and housing. Los Angeles, for example, has developed an Employment and Homelessness Taskforce to increase the capacity of the workforce, public social services, and housing systems to connect people experiencing homelessness to employment.

Employment is not a magic bullet for solving homelessness, but homelessness is still a solvable problem that requires sustained commitment from local communities and the federal government. By making efforts that combine housing and employment supports, policymakers at all levels can better address their communities’ needs. In particular, these efforts should focus on the development and preservation of affordable, permanent housing along with access to good jobs using strategies that align with other federal workforce investments to advance job-quality principles in training and employment.


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Research Areas Housing Workforce
Tags Employment Fair housing and housing discrimination Federal housing programs and policies Homelessness Housing affordability Housing stability Job markets and labor force Job quality and workplace standards Racial barriers to housing Racial inequities in employment Work supports Workforce development
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center
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