In his book about homeless women, Tell Them Who I Am, Elliot Liebow writes, “values and behavior around jobs and work are awash in ambivalence, contradiction, and paradox.” Liebow goes on to explain the complex relationships of homeless women and work. Many women, he writes, do work or do want to work. Some women hold more than one job, some only work intermittently, and some work random gigs for people they know. Some homeless women do avoid work, while others are afraid to try looking for work because they don’t have a fixed address or phone number to use when applying. Overall, there is a huge variation for homeless women when it comes to their experience with jobs and paid work.
The variation of work and jobs among homeless women shows us that working and homelessness is more challenging than the simple idea of homeless people needing to get a job to get off the streets. Some of the ambivalent or paradoxical ideas around work relate to the idea that one can be working, or want to be working, and still find themselves homeless. It is not hard to imagine why some people give up trying to work when they see others work hard but remain stuck on the streets or still others search for jobs and face constant let down with not being hired due to their appearance, their lack of recent work history, or because of their homelessness itself. It is also not hard to imagine that some women would like to work, possibly just to avoid boredom, but are afraid to try because they don’t want to be outcasts on the job or be looked down-upon by co-workers or customers for living in a shelter or in a car.
Ultimately, I don’t think the relationship that most homeless women have to work is all that different than the relationships most housed people have with work. We all strive toward retirement. We work hard, so that one day we won’t have to work any more. But when we meet someone new, pretty much the first thing we ask is what they do for work. And if they were a wealthy person who never had to work, we look down on them, even if we wish we were in their shoes and didn’t have to go to work every day. We too are living paradoxes when it comes to work and jobs. Some of us work simply to avoid the boredom, to escape our family lives, or to avoid disappointing other people. Some of us love our jobs and would do them even if we didn’t get paid. And some of us are frustrated by those old boomers who just won’t retire to let us take over the top spots that we have been striving so hard to reach – not because we necessarily need more money, but because we want the prestige and title to impress others.
In reading about homelessness, and in my personal interactions with homeless individuals, I am always surprised (which itself I find surprising) when I hear homeless people talking about work. I never expect us to share something in common around work, but the conversations I have heard fit with any conversation complaining about the tedious and unpleasant parts of a job. I’ve heard first-hand the ambivalent and often paradoxical thoughts toward work that Liebow wrote about. The easy way to think about homelessness and work is to assume the homeless don’t want to work. But the reality is much more complicated than the simple assumption. The reality is that all of us have more complicated views and feelings about work than we want to admit, and that include the homeless.