It is tempting to look at homeless people and people with signs on street corners and hold the opinion that the person simply needs to get a job and all their problems would be fixed. If they would get a job, even if it was physically demanding, low-wage, and/or a dirty job, they wouldn’t be begging for money or sleeping in shelters. We assume people don’t want to work and would rather beg and take a hand-out.
However, when Elliot Liebow spent time among homeless women in Washington DC and interviewed them to understand their lives, he discovered that many of them did want to work, but were prevented from finding and maintaining a job by a number of factors beyond their control. He writes, “At a very general level of unexamined beliefs, most women accepted the proposition that a job is the way out of homelessness. But when they confronted their own concrete situations, they knew this was not true for most of them.” Liebow examines many of the barriers that the women faced with working, and also highlighted how several of the women he met in shelters did have jobs, but still could not rent an apartment.
Some jobs are too far away for someone to commit to. Job security is a challenge for any homeless person, where one slip up or unfair customer could lead to the loss of their job. Additionally, night shifts are not possible for homeless people with no place to sleep during the day, and jobs that don’t have predictable schedules can be extra challenging for homeless or low-income individuals to maintain. If your work schedule is unknown in advance, it is hard to plan appropriately, and if you can lose shifts when things get slow, that means that your housing could be in jeopardy.
Liebow also stresses that it is not simply the money and the desire to no longer be homeless that motivated the women he spoke with to work. “For most people …” he wrote, “[the] social value of work is experienced, at the individual level, as a principal source of independence and self-respect.” Work is something we take pride in. Few of us truly want a job where we get paid to sit on our rear ends without any expectations that we actually do anything. While we all work toward retirement, we also want to have meaningful and fulfilling work to do. Liebow continues, “it is through work that we engage the world and become a part of it, and through work that we lay claim to membership in the larger community and, in getting paid for our work, have that membership confirmed by others.” Many homeless individuals want to work, to get money and get off the streets, but also to be accepted members of their society. This is a reality we don’t all recognize or understand (even about ourselves) and we don’t always recognize the barriers that keep people from finding a job that will help bring them back into society in a meaningful and productive way.