There is an adage that says that the poor are always with us. And, unfortunately, even in this land of hope, opportunity, and immense wealth, the adage remains true. Decades after President Johnson’s “Great Society” strategy to end poverty in America, homelessness remains a persistent and prolific problem in large cities and small towns alike.
But compounding the tragedy of rampant homelessness in the United States are the stereotypes and stigmatization that all too often are associated with homelessness. Among the most damaging of these misconceptions is the idea that the homeless often choose their state, and that they could get off the streets if they would “just get a job.”
In reality, however, homeless persons face tremendous challenges in getting a job. And that creates a vicious cycle from which it can be nearly impossible to escape.
A Matter of Logistics
Those of us who have never experienced homelessness cannot possibly comprehend the impact that not having a physical address can have on the ability to function from day to day. Many employers, for instance, require candidates to provide a home address before the application process can even begin.
In addition to the lack of a physical address, many homeless persons do not have consistent access to a phone. Plus, cellphones must be regularly charged, which can be impossible when you don’t have steady housing. Thus, without a physical mailing address and dependable phone access, prospective employers have no reliable way to contact homeless job candidates, and that can be a significant deterrent in the hiring process.
And it’s not only the lack of a phone or a physical address that provides a logistical barrier to obtaining steady employment. Living on the streets necessarily takes a toll on your ability to practice proper hygiene. Without access to facilities to shower and to clean and press your clothes, you are all too likely to be rejected out of hand when applying for work or to be dismissed if homeless employees are unable to meet the company’s dress codes.
Lack of Access to Mental and Physical Healthcare
Logistical factors are by no means the only barriers to employment for homeless persons. Indeed, one of the greatest obstacles to steady work is inadequate access to physical and mental healthcare. Many homeless persons experience significant health challenges, from chronic illness and disability to mental health challenges and addiction.
And, once again, lack of access to healthcare creates a vicious cycle that only further increases the barriers to employment. For example, studies have shown that those experiencing drug or alcohol addiction are more likely to achieve sobriety if they practice consistent positive self-talk. When you face constant rejection from prospective employers, however, such self-affirmation can feel wholly out of reach. After all, it is incredibly difficult to feel hopeful, optimistic, motivated, and worthy when you are always being rebuffed, stigmatized, and shut out.
What Is to Be Done?
As intractable as the problem of homelessness can seem, particularly regarding homelessness and employment, there is hope. But the answer lies in a fundamental ideological change, one which recognizes the structural barriers to employment for the homeless.
For instance, as has been shown, employers too readily stigmatize and too quickly reject homeless applicants, principally based on the misconception that these candidates lack the motivation to change their lives and get off the streets.
Education and public awareness, though, can go far to dispel the stereotypes that prevent employers from recruiting homeless candidates. Indeed, an enhanced focus on the benefits of diversity and inclusion in the workplace can help business owners recognize the unique talents, skills, and experiences that persons who have faced homelessness can bring to the organization.
Similarly, a concerted move to significantly increase public funding for housing the homeless will yield immense benefits, breaking down many of the barriers to employment for the homeless. This funding can provide homeless populations with employment education, such as what a good resume looks like and how to write one. With increased access to housing, job candidates will have a physical address and, in all likelihood, more reliable phone access. They will also have consistent access to bathing and laundry facilities. These necessities are integral to securing and maintaining a job.
Best of all, equipped with these resources, the formerly homeless can build job security and stability, which will, in turn, increase their access to quality mental, physical, and behavioral healthcare. And that means that the vicious cycle of homelessness, joblessness, and inadequate medical care can be replaced with a cycle of steady housing, reliable work, and consistent healthcare.
All too often, homeless persons are unfairly blamed for their plight. The uninformed assume that homeless persons can change their situation if they will only “get a job.” However, numerous barriers to employment exist for the homeless. Nevertheless, with increased funding for housing and with an ideological shift toward diversity and inclusion, the vicious cycle of homelessness and joblessness can be broken.