People experiencing homelessness face a number of challenges with finding employment in the formal labour market. The stereotype that all homeless people are unemployed because they are lazy is simply not true. Research consistently shows that people who are homeless want to work and many diligently pursue employment opportunities or work in some capacity. However, being homeless makes it next to impossible to obtain and maintain formal employment.
Barriers to Employment
Not having a home means that people experiencing homelessness may not have an address to put on a résumé, a phone number for job call backs, and a safe place to prepare for job interviews. It also means not having the opportunity to recover from a day's work in a safe environment where they can shower, get a good night of sleep, prepare their own food (including food to take to work), recover from illness or injury, rest, and maintain their health. Participants in a research study reported the shame and embarrassment they felt when providing a shelter’s address to a potential employer or having to explain why they didn’t have ID or a bank account. Many decide not to disclose their homelessness status in fear of being automatically disqualified as a suitable candidate. Other barriers to employment among the homeless population can included:
- Low educational attainment
- Physical disability
- Mental health and substance use
- Criminal record
- Limited access to transportation
- Lack of experience in the field of interest
- Lack of vocational training
- Lack of computer access in addition to low levels of computer literacy required to perform job searches and fill out online applications.
Even when a homeless person is able to find employment, it is often on the margins of the economy. Many are forced to work in unsafe and unregulated jobs and/or are paid under the table where the pay may be inconsistent and/or lower than average wages. Temporary work has also been described as a barrier to meaningful and permanent employment as it hinders relationship building with employers while interfering with long-term career planning. Precarious work not only foregoes benefits or a living wage but may also lead to vulnerable workers being exploited as cheap labour.
On the other hand, some homeless people have no other option but to adopt dangerous survival strategies to generate income including panhandling, dealing drugs, stealing, squeegeeing, and/or sex work. A study found that homeless youth who dropped out of high school are more likely to engage in sex work, squeegeeing or panhandling but the overwhelming majority who engage in such work would prefer gaining employment within the formal economy. Homeless youth face a number of additional barriers to employment in comparison to homeless adults, including:
- Age discrimination
- Lack of encouragement to plan and pursue career opportunities
- Weak social and human capital (education, friends, families, networks)
- Lack of life skills (budgeting, time management, conflict resolution)
- Lack of recognition and value in hiring youth with barriers
- Lack of support with transition to adulthood
What is Being Done?
From the employers’ side, many shared their limited notion of homelessness based on stereotypes of the homeless population. Some indicated their lack of knowledge and experience working with people who are homeless, and felt ill-equipped to address the needs of their homeless employees. As a result, employment was terminated despite their best of intentions.
To better support employers and employees, one study found that homeless youth require strong partnerships between employers and youth-serving agencies. A growing number of youth service providers are building strategic partnerships and fostering strong corporate engagement in order to meet the needs of their clients and employers. The Train for Trades program at Choices for Youth in St. John’s, NL works directly with local trade unions to enable young people to learn on the job, gain credentials and work on a personal plan towards long-term sustainable and viable employment. Using an intensive support model, the Train for Trades program reaches out to support youth with lower education levels, those with poor mental health, and/or those who have been involved with the criminal justice system.
Another successful program is HireUp, a community of youth-serving organizations and employers from across Canada helping youth gain meaningful employment while raising awareness about youth homelessness. Participants are provided with holistic supports, accommodation, case management and on-the-job training by both employer and youth agency to improve their chances of success. Employers receive supports to increase their benefits from their involvement with HireUp while gaining recognition in the media and other communication channels that increase their brand’s reputation.
In Toronto, Eva’s Phoenix Print Shop is a social enterprise that offers a job training program for homeless and at-risk youth. Eva’s Phoenix Print Shop has connected over 100 youth with career opportunities in Canada’s graphic communications sector. The goal is for program graduates to achieve self-sufficiency through formal employment.
While these innovative youth job training programs are successful, more supports and initiatives like these are needed to lift youth and adults out of homelessness through formal employment. Additional research is required to shed light on the specific needs of families with children, single mothers, older adults, veterans, newcomers and individuals with health concerns who are looking for employment.
With the appropriate supports, people experiencing homelessness can overcome barriers to thrive and succeed in the workplace. Employment is just one component in the broader set of strategies to end homelessness through collaboration and coordination over a number of sectors.