Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Employment and Income Supports for Homeless People. Barriers to Work Faced by Homeless People


There are assertions and supporting evidence throughout the research literature that all segments of the homeless population  unaccompanied adults, heads of family households, and youth  face significant and multiple barriers to employment. These barriers are personal, programmatic, and systemic. People who are homeless often lack skills in stress management and social interaction, independent living skills, and skills for vocational engagement (Munoz, Reichenbach, & Hansen, 2005), as well as a place to live and financial resources. Barriers such as lack of transportation and educational credentials are prevalent among homeless people in both urban and rural areas (Taylor, 2001). In addition, homeless young adults and youth experience high levels of trauma and typically have poor educational and vocational preparation (Barber et al., 2005).

Mental health and physical health play central roles in the employment and program participation of people who are homeless or at risk for homelessness. Disabilities are well-documented barriers to employment, although the extent of the hindrance varies. For example, the employment of persons with schizophrenia is impeded by a range of specific clinical problems. People with schizophrenia who have greater cognitive impairment experience more difficulty in the labor market and require more vocational support than those with lesser impairment (McGurk et al., 2003).

Substance use disorders, alone or in combination with disabilities, substantially reduce the income people receive from work (Zuvekas & Hill, 2000). Competitive employment is further impeded by receipt of disability payments (and concomitant adverse work incentives) and by race (Rosenheck et al., 2006). Among homeless people with severe mental illness, those with a history of incarceration have more serious problems and show less improvement in community adjustment domains (McGuire & Rosenheck, 2004). Incarceration can decrease the types of employment available after release from jail or prison, and a history of incarceration has been shown to alter how homeless ex-offenders conduct job searches (Cooke, 2004).

The barriers faced by homeless families are generally similar to those of other low-income families, including families on welfare. The key issues are transportation, child care, educational limitations, and substance abuse (Burt & Anderson, 2005; Burt, Aron, & Lee, 1999; Taylor, 2001). Severe mental health problems and histories of incarceration are less common for homeless family heads than they are for homeless adults who are unaccompanied.

In addition to these barriers, the digital divide remains a deep chasm for homeless populations. Competing for jobs today requires some understanding of and comfort and competency with information technology. Miller and colleagues (2005) identified the lack of such facility among homeless men as an important barrier to employment. Because they lacked computer knowledge and feared failure, the majority of study participants had not sought to use computers available through public access.

These limitations help to produce poor labor market outcomes for homeless people. Unemployment among homeless populations is widespread, and the problem is especially great during economic downturns. For example, at the end of 2002, there were 3.2 unemployed workers for every job opening, compared to 1.3 at the end of 2000 (Bernstein & Chapman, 2003), and low-wage job seekers, including people experiencing homelessness, suffered as a result.[3]  In addition, the jobs that homeless people and tenants of supportive housing most frequently secure are low paying  laborer positions, jobs in the services sector (including food service and hospitality), and clerical or office positions (Isaac, 2001; Rog et al., 1999; Trutko et al., 1998).

As formidable as these barriers may seem, there are consistent reports in the literature that homeless people rise above the barriers and find ways to earn income from employment (Sowell et al., 2004; Theodore, 2000). Indeed, mounting evidence counters the view that homeless people face insurmountable barriers or are simply work shirkers. Given the opportunity, training, and sustained support, even people who have been homeless for long periods or who have experienced frequent episodes of homelessness have succeeded at working. Evidence of homeless individuals desire for jobs and tenacity in working has emerged from case studies and surveys of homeless people (Burt, Aron, & Lee, 1999; Weinberg & Kogel, 1995; Evans, 1998).

Personal characteristics and histories can indicate how well people, including homeless people, will fare in employment. Researchers continue to search for predictive indicators for successful job placement of people with complex problems (McGurk & Mueser, 2006; Hoffman et al., 2003; Macias et al., 2001). Bogard et al. (2001) found that poor single mothers who had experienced an episode of homelessness and had symptoms of depression, but had a work history of full-time employment, left shelters quickly and entered employment after a shelter episode. Identifying such indicators can assist program planners in designing services most likely to meet the needs of a variety of job seekers, so that job seekers and service providers can transcend barriers to employment and achieve vocational objectives.

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