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Why Don't Homeless People Just Get Jobs?

Kylyssa Shay was homeless for over a year in her youth; it lead her to become a homelessness activist. She thinks, feels, and has opinions.

Find out why ending homelessness isn't as simple as just getting a job.

Find out why ending homelessness isn't as simple as just getting a job.

Why Is It Hard for Homeless People to Get Jobs?

People make many assumptions about homeless people. Perhaps the most common is that they are too lazy to work. Having been there myself and having worked with many others in the same situation, I have to say that for the vast majority of homeless people, the assumption that they are lazy is dead wrong.

Many homed people look at the horrible lives of people living on the streets and ask why on earth a person wouldn't do something to help themselves in that situation. They ask, "Why don't they just get jobs?" Oddly enough, they don't seem to also wonder if jobs are available and if there are any barriers to getting a job without having a home or an address. "Why can't homeless people get jobs?" is a much better question.

I wrote this article to answer that question, dispel a few more myths, and drive home the reality that homelessness is something that no one asks for or deserves.

Why Can't Homeless People Get Jobs?

  1. They don't have addresses, and most employers require addresses. This is a lose-lose situation: They can't get a place to live until they get a job, but can't get a job until they get a place to live.
  2. Many employers won't consider unemployed job applicants (not even those with homes).
  3. Many homeless people don't have reliable phones, and this becomes an obstacle to employment. Even if they have a phone, they might not always have a way to charge it.
  4. It's hard to stay clean and neat when you're homeless, and most employers require grooming.
  5. Many have gaps in their employment history, which is something that employers are suspicious about.
  6. They have lousy credit scores. Many employers do credit screenings on potential employees, and when you're homeless, your credit score will suffer.
  7. They don't have cars, and many jobs require one. Expensive transportation can be a huge obstacle to getting to work.
  8. They have criminal records as a result of their homelessness (and sometimes, their only crime was not having a place to sleep).
  9. Many are disabled. Many people with mental or physical disabilities end up on the street.
  10. Addiction might play a part. Addictions prevent them from looking for work and from getting hired. Many employers assume homeless people are addicts.
  11. Many have jobs already. Despite having a job, people still can still lose their homes or be unable to afford housing.

Each of these situations is described fully below, where you'll also find information about job statistics, how to help a homeless person get a job, and discussions about how easy it is to lose your home, whether or not homeless people are just lazy, and why money alone can't solve the problem.

Homeless people can't get a place to live until they get a job . . . but can't get a job until they get a place to live.

Homeless people can't get a place to live until they get a job . . . but can't get a job until they get a place to live.

1. Homeless People Don't Have Regular Addresses

This is pretty much the definition of being homeless. The lack of an address can be a huge obstacle to finding work. Many do not have a mailing address they can use on job applications or have the address to a PO box, church, or mission to use. Employers are put off by irregular addresses on job applications. Don't kid yourself; many employers would never consider a homeless person for a job opening. They have the same misconceptions about them that everyone else does. To get past this problem, some lie on applications or find a homed friend to provide an address for them, but this presents its own problems. If they catch this lie, most employers are less-than-understanding.

2. Some Employers Will Not Consider Unemployed Job Applicants

If your company downsizes and you become unemployed, you may be unable to find a job that accepts applications from people not currently working. Many job listings state that the unemployed should not apply. So even if you have a place to live and an address, if you are unemployed, you may have a harder time getting hired.

3. Many Don't Have Reliable Phones

It's hard to even have a charged mobile phone without somewhere to plug it in. Most employers won't even bother to figure out how to contact an applicant without a phone. This makes having a $25 pay-as-you-go phone a lifesaver for many. I've seen a number of people on the Internet complaining about homeless people with cell phones. Perhaps if they knew that a cell phone is often their only way to get a job, they might stop complaining. Then again, maybe not.

4. It's Hard to Stay Clean and Neat When You're Homeless

The standard of cleanliness required of job applicants or employees can be unattainable for some. I've seen the suggestion that people just don't try hard enough to stay clean and well-groomed, but do you honestly think that you could show up to a job interview with a tidy haircut, a pressed suit and tie, shined shoes, a shower-fresh smell, and a clean shave without a home? For women, the situation is even harder due to social requirements to wear make-up.

5. Many Homeless People Have Gaps in Their Employment History

Employment gaps are unsurprising considering that such gaps in employment are often the cause of their homelessness. But still, most applications require an explanation for all gaps in employment, so the homeless person can either risk a lie or tell the truth and doom themselves. Even if the period of unemployment was caused by corporate downsizing, very few employers care to hear explanations.

6. Homeless People Have Lousy Credit Scores

Maintaining a great debt-to-income ratio is not easy when you live in a tent or some other unconventional place. In many states, it's perfectly legal for employers to run a credit screening on job applicants and disqualify those with poor credit ratings. As you can imagine, not having income leads to evictions and medical bankruptcies and past-due bills on your record, and this destroys your credit score. I doubt there are many, if any, homeless people with sterling credit ratings.

7. Many Homeless People Don't Have Cars

For some, it's a home-on-wheels, but many don't have even that. Many jobs require that applicants have dependable transportation. Sometimes this can be the bus, but if work hours are irregular and begin before buses start running or after they have stopped, it means owning your own vehicle. So not having a car or the money to pay bus fare means you can't get to work.

8. Many Homeless People Have Criminal Records

Homelessness, itself, is often a crime. In many cities in America, the state of being homeless is inherently illegal, so getting a criminal record is inevitable if one has nowhere to live in those areas. While some people on the street do commit crimes, sometimes their only crime is being without a place to sleep. It often doesn't take long for them to get criminal records without doing anything wrong. Charges for loitering, trespassing, unauthorized camping, or for falling asleep in a place not designated as a residence are common.

And since employers are turned off by criminal records, applicants without criminal records will almost always be preferred. Even if a homeless person lucks out and avoids getting a criminal record, he or she will often be assumed to be a criminal and an addict if their un-housed status is discovered.

By definition, disability is the inability to perform substantial work. This is why many disabled people are homeless.

By definition, disability is the inability to perform substantial work. This is why many disabled people are homeless.

9. Many Homeless People Are Disabled

By definition, disability is the inability to perform substantial work. Whether physically or mentally ill, many homeless people are disabled by their illnesses. I've read the criticisms and assertions that those with mental illness just need to straighten up and get a job. The problem is that anyone mentally ill enough to be sleeping in a cardboard box isn't fit to work a job until he or she gets at least a little better. They aren't faking; they aren't just being too lazy to work. Mentally ill homeless people are just that—mentally ill.

Do homeless people choose to be homeless?

How could anyone possibly think that sleeping outside, getting beaten and abused, and suffering humiliation after humiliation is preferable to working and having a safe, comfortable place to sleep, protection from assault, and respect from your fellow man? If a person really thought that the horror of homelessness was better than working a job, wouldn't that be pretty insane in itself? It's not a choice.

That strange, smelly homeless guy yelling nonsense at passersby is disabled by his mental illness. Some are physically too ill to hold down a job, too.

If people are disabled, then why aren't they living in a cheap apartment supported by Social Security Disability?

  • They are often still in the process of applying for it. The first denial can take up to six months and the first appeal takes around 500 days. During that time, the physically disabled with nowhere to live are both unable to work and not getting any income.
  • Also, to get disability insurance, applicants must be available to be contacted and able to make it to appointments, sometimes hundreds of miles away.
  • Sometimes, getting disability insurance is impossible for homeless people. Being without an address might cause them to experience a delay too great in mail delivery making them disqualified to receive assistance for missing an appointment. Food assistance is often pretty much all they can get.
  • Many of the mentally disabled who are living on the street are too messed up to get or hold down a job or sometimes even understand what is going on around them. If they are too disconnected or disaffected from reality to work a job, how on earth are they going to navigate the process of filing for Disability?

10. Addiction (and the Assumption of Addiction) Is an Obstacle to Employment

Not all homeless people are addicted to drugs, but most people believe that they are, including employers. Most people think this is the major reason homeless people don't get jobs, and it may be true for many chronically homeless people. Addictions prevent them from looking for work and from getting hired. However, the perception that all homeless people are drug-addicted criminals is possibly a greater barrier to their employment than actual drug addiction is. There's no doubt that addiction causes many people to remain homeless, but it is by no means the reason all homeless people are without homes or why they are not working.

These days, people with advanced degrees are applying for low-wage positions and general labor jobs.

These days, people with advanced degrees are applying for low-wage positions and general labor jobs.

11. Many Homeless People Have Jobs Already

One reason someone without housing may not be looking for a job is that he or she may already have a job or two already. Approximately a third to one-half of the homeless population is employed. Despite having a job, people can still lose their homes or be unable to afford housing.

During the current economic situation, and with so many people un-housed due to mortgage foreclosures, in some cities well over half of the homeless population has jobs. Nationwide, the employment rate is about 44% for people without homes. Keeping in mind how many are elderly, children, disabled, or mentally ill that's a pretty high percentage.

Why don't these people have housing if they are employed?

  • Many are working at minimum wage jobs, which don't provide enough to pay for basic living expenses in many parts of the country.
  • Many of them are underemployed; they don't get enough hours of work to pay the bills.
  • Some people who work for low wages lose their homes when company cutbacks cut their hours.

There are working people all around you who are living in cars, in shelters, or on the street. In some cities like New York, even having full-time work is no guarantee of affordable housing.

So why don't they just get more work and work two or three jobs at a time?

Many of them do. But a cluster of minimum-wage jobs at a few hours a week doesn't generally get them very far. Getting enough hours with multiple jobs can be very difficult as well. To make multiple jobs work, employers have to be willing to work with a schedule that accommodates their employee's other jobs. Finding two (much less more) employers willing to work around other work schedules is difficult enough, but each added job makes finding and keeping a balance even more difficult. It is an extremely rare employer who is willing to schedule an employee around that employee's other job schedule.

I've worked as many as five part-time jobs at a time, which averaged around 65 to 70 hours of work per week. I had a home and a phone and it was still difficult to juggle the schedule. Eventually, I was forced to cut back to three jobs because employers were unwilling to work around other work schedules.

Homeless Employment Statistics

The fact that working a full-time job is not enough to house a person is a largely invisible problem due to a lack of data. This reality is not invisible to anyone who looks around their community and sees an increasing number of people living on the street or in their cars, but it is invisible to those who only believe the numbers. However, there are some numbers to look at:

  • Researchers at the Urban Institute estimate that approximately 25% of the homeless population is employed.
  • The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that between 40 and 60% of homeless people shift in and out of full-time and part-time work.
  • The Washington Council of Governments' 2017 report says that 22% of homeless single adults and 25% of adults in homeless families are employed.
  • The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, but nationwide, an average hourly wage of $16.38 is required to rent an apartment.
  • The population of working homeless is growing in cities across the US.

Money Alone Isn't Enough to Rent an Apartment

What?!? That's right, money alone is not enough to rent most apartments. To get into most apartment complexes in the United States, applicants must have a good credit score, good references, and have a job at which they earn at least three times as much as the monthly rent.

How much money do you need to make to rent an apartment?

While a person might be able to afford to rent an apartment working a minimum wage job by sticking to a very strict budget, still, most apartment complexes will not rent to him. A very modest one-bedroom apartment might only cost $650 a month in budget housing but those who rent it must earn at least $1950 a month in most cases. Here in Michigan, a person earning the new, higher minimum wage of $9.45 an hour would still fall short by $438 per month. You'd need to earn at least $11.90 per hour to even be considered an acceptable applicant for the apartment.

I recently helped friends fill out paperwork to move into a budget apartment complex and the requirement on their paperwork read that the rent must not exceed 30% of the applicants' combined income. So their $ 700-a-month apartment requires them to earn at least $2,333 per month to be allowed to rent it.

Cosigners could help. Unfortunately, the combined income of the renter and the cosigner usually have to equal at least five times the monthly rent and the cosigner must not have a high debt-to-income ratio.

Are Homeless People Just Lazy?

You hear people claim that homeless people are just lazy, but can you imagine someone saying to themselves, "I don't want to work. It's just no fun. I think I'd rather live on the street, exposed to the elements and violence." That makes no sense. There are many reasons for homelessness, but "lazy" is not on the list.

What are the main causes of homelessness?

  • Low incomes and poverty.
  • Lack of affordable housing.
  • Unemployment.
  • Family and relationship breakdowns.
  • Domestic violence.
  • Evictions and foreclosures.
  • The effects of racial disparities.
  • Disabilities and poor physical health.

How to Help a Homeless Person Get a Job

Even if you can't invite them to live with you, there are many things you can do to help.

  • Hire them! If you have a job that fits their skills, give them a chance.
  • If you know of any job opportunities, let them know. Ask around and do some legwork to help them connect with potential employers.
  • Help them get, use, repair, and/or charge a phone.
  • Help them set up and get to a job interview.
  • Drive them to work (or help them pay for transportation).
  • Let them use your address on their applications.
  • Cosign to help them get an apartment (so they'll have an address to use on their application).
  • Let them shower at your house.
  • Let them wash their clothes in your machine.
  • Give them some clean, work-appropriate clothing.
  • Help them improve their credit scores.
  • Help them get and take their medications.
  • Help them access your local support organizations.
  • Make sure they're eating properly.
  • Be a friend. Listen to them and share your experience. Moral support help, too!

How Easy Is It to Become Homeless?

If you ask how many people in the US are homeless now or how many people lose their homes each month, you won't be able to find firm figures. That's because most studies get their numbers by sporadically counting people who are in shelters or on specific streets at specific times, so those surveys underestimate the total number of people who are on the street today.

But no matter how imprecise the data is, one thing we do know is that homelessness is increasing at an alarming rate. Every day, it's getting easier and easier to lose everything and find yourself on the street... but if you fall into any of the following categories, your chance of becoming homeless increases:

  • If your wages don't keep up with inflation and the cost of living increases. In the '60s, a minimum-wage job could support a family of three, but that's no longer true today.
  • If you get laid off, downsized, or fired. Loss of employment is one of the most common ways to lose housing.
  • If you lose your home. In the last 10 years, home foreclosures have increased by over 30%, which also leads to an increase in evictions for renters.
  • If you get too old. 50% of the homeless population is over the age of 50.
  • If you can't afford healthcare. Medical costs are a common reason for bankruptcy and poverty, and health problems or disabilities lead to homelessness.
  • If you are hit by a natural disaster. Wildfires, hurricanes, and other natural disasters are on the rise, and those events usually precipitate housing crises.
  • If you are disabled. More than 40% of the homeless population are people with disabilities, and this number keeps rising.
  • If you have mental health issues or issues with substance abuse. Half of the people in shelters have either a substance use disorder, a psychiatric disorder, or both.
  • If you are a victim of domestic violence. More than 80% of homeless mothers with children have experienced domestic violence.
  • If you serve in the military. About 8% of the homeless population are veterans.
  • If you don't conform to gender or sexual norms, you risk being kicked out of your home and losing familial support. In the US, more than 110,000 LGBTQ youth are homeless.
Today, avoiding homelessness is getting harder and harder for the average American.

Today, avoiding homelessness is getting harder and harder for the average American.

Further Reading

To learn more, check out some of my other articles on the topic:

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Where do you get your information? What are your sources?

Answer: If you read the article, you'll see most of my sources are life experiences. For instance, I know about apartments checking credit and requiring renters to earn a certain amount from helping dozens of people fill out rental applications. It's in the words on the pieces of paper they filled out. If you step away from the internet, you'll have life experiences, too. The things that you do and that happen to you in your physical proximity are just as real as what you read online. Try it. Go help a few people fill out rental applications or job applications and see if I'm right.

Question: Why did wages 60 years ago for blue-collar and service jobs pay enough to raise a family of 4 or so then and now there's such economic disparity?

Answer: Corporations and business owners have chosen to keep larger and larger percentages of profits over the years. Shareholders have demanded greater returns on their investments. Wages haven't increased to reflect inflation.

Question: When you stated statistics, where did you find the statistics and why didn't you reference the information?

Answer: Most of them should be hot-linked. Click on the words of a different color in the relevant sentences. Some may have been unlinked by the editors. I wrote this a long time ago and editors have since changed it many times. It used to have a list of source and resource links at the bottom, but the editors removed them long ago and insisted on in-text links. It seems to lose links (and photos) every time the staff editors change it. I've even seen them add links that were later removed by a different editor. I haven't made any repairs lately because it's an almost ten-year-old article that only gets maybe a few hundred views a day, tops. The original links were most likely removed due to being dead links.

© 2009 Kylyssa Shay