In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes about homeless women who make an effort to work and earn paychecks. Detailing the experience of a woman named Gwen, he writes,
“Keeping a job could be as difficult as finding one. Keeping a job might mean having to suppress an awareness of one’s real-life situation. Gwen struggled against that awareness. Once, when she had to go to her salesclerk job the next day, she was trying very hard not to be discouraged and not to worry about the fact that The Refuge [the homeless shelter where she was living] would close the next week. You’ve got to have a clear head on a job, she said if your mind is on your troubles, you can’t do your job. Customers want you to pay attention to them, and that’s what your boss wants you to do, too.”
When we think about homeless men and women our first thought is often that these people need to get a job and begin earning money so that they can afford a place to rent and get off the street. When we logically express what each person needs to do we recognize that there is a chain of events taking place. First is securing a job, second is keeping that job long enough to earn a paycheck, and third is being able to afford a place to live to escape homelessness. Somehow, when we casually make this suggestion, we fail to recognize the time that may be involved in each of these steps. We fail to realize that this simple, orderly process that we expect everyone to follow likely requires working a job while not having a place to live.
Liebow’s quote shows how absurd this idea can be. Homeless individuals can hardly be expected to first obtain a job when they live in a shelter and don’t have a stable living situation. Employers will not want to hire someone without reliable transportation to work, who might be coming to work hungry, and who is likely going to be distracted on the job and face numerous troubles outside of work that make it hard for them to perform well. If they do extend a job offer to someone who is homeless, then that individual is likely to have difficult times ahead of them as they try to get their life on track, and that means they may not have the mental toughness and on the job focus to grit through rude customers and challenging work tasks.
This reality is another argument in support of housing first programs. People need to have someplace secure, where they know they can go at the end of the day, in order to put their best selves forward in work. It is truly an argument for expanded social safety net programs in general. Those who contribute to such programs often complain about the costs they bear and the lack of benefits they receive (since they are not the homeless and needy ones) but fail to see how much they could benefit if more people were more productive on the job and were ultimately more productive in society. People are expected to work in the United States, but often they are under-supported and challenged outside of work to an extent that makes both finding and keeping a job nearly impossible. More support upfront may seem wasteful and may seem undeserved, but it may be better for the system in the long run.