During my time as a Mercy Volunteer, I have witnessed the struggles of hundreds of people experiencing homelessness. Each person has their own individual story and struggle, yet they all seem to have a lot in common. Life on the street is hard and many times hopeless. Working as a nurse with people who are experiencing homelessness has not only taught me more about their unique health needs but about all their hardships while surviving on the street. I write this blog specifically to discuss one of our society’s assumptions about this population: Homeless people are lazy and choose not to get a job.
Many assume homeless people are lazy and that they should/could get a job like the rest of us. It must be true because we see the help wanted signs, we are short staffed at our workplaces, and we know there are jobs available all over. I want to challenge you to really consider what the process of getting a job might look like for someone experiencing homelessness that is either sleeping outside or in a shelter.
From what I’ve seen, not having a phone and home address are two of the biggest barriers to getting a job. Can you imagine, in this day and age, going to an interview and not having a phone number to give? Communication is very important when applying for a job- they need to contact you for an interview, they might want to discuss your application over the phone, they will need to contact you to let you know if you have been given the job, etc. Unfortunately, many of our clients do not have cell phones. Those that do, are usually out of minutes or cannot find an outlet to charge their phone on a daily basis. Few businesses downtown will let people loiter in their buildings to charge their phone. If you’re lucky, you might be able to give the employer your homeless friend’s number who may or may not run out of minutes on the day the employer calls. You might also provide a shelter’s phone number, or maybe you just make one up because you’re embarrassed. Is that employer going to toss your application out when they realize they don’t even have a reliable way to contact you? Or are they going to call your friend’s neighbor’s aunt’s cell phone number that you gave them, in hopes of getting a message back to you about the job? It’s difficult to say.
So, after being unable to reach you by phone, surely your employer will need a home address for you. “Six feet from the left of the Redfield bridge under the oak tree” probably isn’t going to cut it here. Fortunately for many, our Wellspring drop-in center allows people to use our address as their home address. Hopefully, he/she has set that all up before this interview. If not, they may again have to make something up, use a random friend or family member’s address, or admit to the employer that they are homeless. Their response is unfortunately not likely to be, “wow I am so proud of you for making these changes for yourself and happy to help you get back on your feet!” Instead, this may be the moment the interviewer decides that once this person is not fit for the job.
This person experiencing homelessness probably does not have a lot of money. If you’ve interviewed for a job, you know you must transport yourself there, then possibly to get drug tested and get a physical. Bus tickets are not cheap. This may lead to panhandling or selling yourself for enough money to get to the interview. Wellspring or another outreach group may be able to give you a single-use bus pass, but this is a very temporary solution. How will you get home? To the next interview? Maybe you should use this bus pass to see the doctor you’ve been needing to see instead?
Next, there are the obvious hygiene issues. At a job interview, one should have clean clothes, be showered, have socks and shoes, etc. Most grooming products are available at our day shelter, in addition to one shower stall, but there are still many conflicts in terms of keeping oneself clean and groomed while living on the street.
Lastly, I learned that living in a shelter can also create new barriers to getting a job. In fact, one man’s struggle with a shelter and maintaining his job is what motivated me to write this entire blog. A couple months ago my community member, who works at our drop-in center, explained one of her client’s struggles with me: A man recently got a new job, he actually started the next day! He was thrilled. The job was over an hour bus ride away, and he had to report to work by 7am. The shelter he stays at unfortunately has a rule that persons who spend the night cannot leave before 6:30am. They have these rules because with few staff members they cannot be running around unlocking people’s lockers and letting them out the door at different times in the morning. To prevent this, everyone must leave at 6:30am. My community member worked hard with this client to find ways around this problem. They called the shelter, asked them to make exceptions, but with no luck. As far as I can see, this man’s two options are to 1. sleep outside (does he even have a sleeping bag? Coat? Blanket?) and make it to work on time for his first day with little to no sleep, or 2. he can sleep in the shelter and lose his job. What would you choose? It’s an unfair decision to have to make. He must sacrifice his basic human rights and needs to make it to his first day of work.
I share this blog and his story to bring light to both the obvious, and the unthought-of barriers to homeless individuals finding jobs. All I’ve written is what one might experience in one interview, or one day of work, on just one given day. It’s hard to imagine how hopeless one might become over time. Would you do this every day until you got a job? Would you make these sacrifices to keep the job? How long until you would give up?
Kelsi Bockenhauer: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania