When Going to Work is a Disadvantage

by Matt Hayes

Imagine you have just gotten home from a hard day's work. What do you do? You have something to eat, have an opportunity to shower, rest, and prepare for the next day of work. Now, imagine you get off work, have no where to go, nothing to eat, no where to wash, and spend the night trying to stay warm. With which scenario do you think it would be harder to maintain a job? For thousands of working homeless people, it is the latter scenario with which they must deal.

The homeless and formerly homeless people interviewed for this article expressed a strong desire to work but described the lack of a consistent home as being the most difficult hurdle. Edward Ice, who is formerly homeless and now working at The Bishop Cosgrove Center described the difficulty of getting a "foothold" in the working world when you are homeless. Most of the working homeless have jobs through temp agencies and must work the second or third shift. Ice stated that, "Normally after work you have a place to go home, rest, wash, and eat. The working homeless will get locked out of shelter because they get back from work too late. They must wander around all night and the next day are tired, dirty, and hungry but must go back to work or they'll those their job." Ice also pointed out that the time it takes for a homeless person to go to and from work may equal 12 - 14 hours. "But they're paid for only eight minus money deducted for transportation provided by a temp agency, money deducted for taxes, and money deducted for cashing their check."

Other members of the homeless community agreed that the inability to get sufficient rest, food, and a shower makes it almost impossible to maintain employment. Calvin, who is 35, currently works at Atlas Tech through a temp agency. They will only give him the second shift and by the time he gets back to a shelter for single men at midnight they are already full. He's cold and tired but they tell him from behind a closed door that he cannot come in. "I have to sit in a bus station and pretend I'm going some where or find anywhere I can to stay warm." He may manage a few hours of sleep at night but not enough to keep from feeling exhausted. "All I want is a place to lay my head at night. They (the shelter) have another room where they could let workers sleep but they won't allow it." Someone working at the shelter told Calvin to quit his job so he can get in at 8:30 PM but he refuses. Calvin's goal is to save enough money so he can eventually move into a place of his own. Giving up his only source of income will not help him achieve his goal.

Other people interviewed include Jeff, Emory, and Cliff. Jeff is 19 and has worked at various temp agencies. He says he tries to "pick out the right shift so I can get into shelter and sleep." Emory is 21 and has worked for two years at AAA doing whatever labor work is available. Although it is easier for her to find shelter space at night because there is more space available for women, she says it is still hard to be guaranteed a shower and a change of clothes. Cliff, who is 30, has been working construction for the past four weeks and admits he doesn't get much sleep at night. "If I can't get into a shelter I'm usually exhausted but I keep going to work so I don't lose my job."

None of the people interviewed agreed with the stereotype that the homeless are lazy and don't want to work. Cliff disagreed saying, "That isn't true. Most people (who are homeless) work but some might have a problem with the management of money." Bob U. Banks, who is a Homeless Grapevine vendor, has worked many temp jobs and argues that it is mostly the homeless who work for temps. "Temps wouldn't exist without the homeless because no other fools would work for that money in those working conditions." Ice views the stereotype as a "two-sided coin." "There are those who are lazy but they are not the majority." Emory agrees with Ice that some people may be lazy but believes most are trying to pull themselves out of their situation.

When given the option between working the second or third shift and being out in the cold all night, or not working and getting into a shelter, it is understandable why some may chose not to work. People who stereotype the homeless as being lazy also do not consider that the homeless become acclimated to a certain way of life. A homeless person will, for instance, know what time they need to be at a certain shelter to sleep at night, where they need to go to get breakfast, lunch and dinner during the day, and will be left with only a few hours after dinner until they need to wait in line for shelter. They can quickly get used to a schedule of roaming from one shelter to the next as part of their daily routine of security and survival. Breaking this schedule of dependence by obtaining a job which requires missing dinner and sleeping outside in the cold can be very difficult to do. One way to address this problem is to guarantee a working homeless person a place to sleep every night. Ice and Bishop Cosgrove Center director Ron Reinhart want to start a program in which the working homeless are guaranteed a shower and a bed every night. Which, according to Ice is, "Something every working person deserves." It makes much more sense to encourage a homeless person to work and save their money by guaranteeing them a place to sleep than encouraging them to quit their job and thus stay dependent on the shelter system.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published March – April 1996 – Issue 14