Myth: Homeless people are just lazy and don't want to work

One mom tells a story about hearing a young child say, “Homeless people are just lazy.” What horrified her even more was that the child in question was her own, grade-school-aged son.

This pervasive, negative attitude is one kids pick up early and some adults may hang onto throughout their lives. It’s an attitude that flies in the face of a key reality: many adults and families are homeless because they lost a job, not because they’re avoiding getting one.

Social worker Mila Valle, Manager of UMOM’s Halle Women’s Shelter , has worked with homeless men, women, youth and families for more than 20 years. Every day at the Halle Shelter she sees women – in some cases, elderly women who would ordinarily be retired – knocking on doors, answering ads, interviewing for jobs.

Valle said, “It’s not about being lazy. It is hard. For a lot of us, who have a college degree and recent work history, it’s still going to take 30-days or more to find work. For people experiencing homelessness, it’s much worse.”

Why is it harder for people experiencing homelessness to find jobs?

There are dozens of reasons it’s harder for people experiencing homelessness to find work. Here are just a few:

  • No permanent address. Nearly every potential employer insists on applicants providing a permanent home address. Some employers spot a shelter address and instantly rule the candidate out. Other automated employment application systems also require an address; without one, applicants can’t even advance to the next screen.
  • No identification. It’s similar to the lack of a permanent address – no legal ID can mean no employer is willing to take you. Plus, in Arizona, there exists a vicious cycle when it comes to identification. UMOM’s Chief Operating Officer Steven Stivers describes it: “You can’t get a first-time Arizona state ID without a birth certificate, but you can’t get a birth certificate without an ID. So, people often are left feeling trapped in red tape.”
  • Domestic violence. Often, a person escaping domestic violence can’t give an address or even use a real name, for fear their attacker might find them.
  • Cleanliness. When you’re on the street or living in a car, it’s difficult to get a shower or wash clothes, making job interviews embarrassing and unlikely to end with an offer of employment.
  • No phone number. Certainly, some families and individuals experiencing homelessness have phones, but not nearly all of them, making it hard for a potential employer to reach them.
  • No transportation to or from job interviews, let alone to or from the job itself.

One bright light amid this bleak scenario is UMOM’s New Day Employment Center . UMOM clients, including the women at the Halle Center, can get training, GED classes and job readiness classes. Workforce development specialists – along with caseworkers – help clients overcome the array of obstacles that stand between them and a permanent job.

Are there government policy changes we can support, that will help these families, individuals and youth?

One of the first and biggest problems, when it comes to policy change, is the extreme lack of data about the working homeless. The most recent federal data is more than a decade old. Newer studies in New York and Los Angeles estimate that anywhere between 38 and 60 percent of homeless families and individual adults are working or actively looking for a job. Newer, nationwide and state data could constitute a powerful first step toward changing minds and outcomes.

Very few states have laws that prohibit discrimination based on the lack of a permanent address. Changing the law could make it easier to obtain ID and easier to be considered a viable job candidate.

What else can we do?  

Mila Valle of the Halle Center has a suggestion: don’t judge anyone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. “Homeless people are moms, dads and grandparents,” she said. “Homeless young adults often have aged out of foster care and emerge with zero support and zero resources and end up homeless. It happens to the people you know and love, and it could happen to you. Most of us are one paycheck or one health disaster away from homelessness.”

“We don’t know what leads a person or a family to homelessness. We do know that most work hard, want to learn and want to get back into a job and stable housing. All they want is an opportunity to try.”