Two Tough Questions

Posted: May 31, 2008 in Civil Rights, Discrimination, Employment, Homelessness

An email that showed up in my Inbox this morning asked two questions: "Does a homeless person have a chance for employment?" and "Are the homeless discriminated against when they apply for a job?"

Talk about being asked tough questions. And to be quite honest, I’m not sure I know the answer. I don’t ever recall coming across any types of studies or statistics that would provide any clear insight about it. But, I’m willing to make what I hope will be an educated guess based on personal experience and from conversations that I’ve had with a number of homeless people.  

The first question is pretty simple to answer: theoretically every person has a chance of becoming employed. But, theory doesn’t always match up with reality. In this case, with the unemployment rate being around 5 percent, only about 95 out of every 100 persons has an actual chance of being employed.

But perhaps the question should have been: "Does a homeless person have a chance at becoming gainfully employed?"

Again, in theory – yes. In the real world, the odds aren’t all that good.

In general, the homeless are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to finding gainful employment. To be sure, there are jobs out there but a good number of homeless simply do not have the skills required to acquire gainful employment. While there are some exceptions, most homeless would be classified as blue collar workers or unskilled labor – and let’s face it, flipping burgers at McDonald’s isn’t going to allow a person to find a place to live, pay their rent and other bills and still be able to eat.

This is what the National Coalition for the Homeless fact sheet, Employment and Homelessness says about the issue,

"As bad as it is for the 15% of homeless people who have jobs and can’t escape homelessness, climbing out of homelessness is virtually impossible for those without a job. For those with limited skills or experience, opportunities for jobs that pay a living wage are very limited. In such a competitive environment, the difficulties of job seeking as a homeless person can be almost insurmountable barriers to employment."

The last sentence in that statement partially addresses the second question: "Are the homeless discriminated against when they apply for a job?"

According to the Federal Laws Prohibiting Job Discrimination Questions And Answers page on the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) website:

"Under Title VII, the ADA, and the ADEA, it is illegal to discriminate in any aspect of employment, including:

… employment decisions based on stereotypes or assumptions about the abilities, traits, or performance of individuals of a certain sex, race, age, religion, or ethnic group, or individuals with disabilities…"

Once again, in theory, the homeless aren’t supposed to be discriminated against when they apply for a job, but – as I said before – theory and reality don’t always match up.

I’m not saying that employers go out of their way to discriminate against hiring a person because they’re homeless, but it is a distinct possibility that a homeless person is inadvertently discriminated against due to their appearance.

Consider this scenario…

You are an employer. You have one position open and two people apply for that job opening. One of those individuals is dressed neatly. The other person’s appearance is a bit disheveled, and they have with them a large backpack – or even several pieces of "luggage" – which contain all of their worldly possessions.

Based purely on their physical appearance, which would you be most likely to hire?

It’s easy to say to yourself that you would treat both of them equally; that you would take their "experience" into consideration and make your decision based on the qualifications of each individual.

But let’s be honest about it.

We are an American Idol type of society and that makes us a bit superficial. We are more inclined to give our attention to someone who we feel looks more attractive than otherwise. That’s just the reality. And, let’s face it – a lot of homeless people simply don’t have a tailored appearance to them.

Like I said: tough questions – both of them.

And, while I may not know the correct answer to either one, I’m willing to wager that my guesses are a lot closer to actual reality than most are willing to concede to.

  1. AnAmerican says:

    I think you bring up a point that isn’t just unique to the homeless but to the general population of unskilled labor in the US. In the current economic climate having a skill or education defintely puts an applicant at the head of the line in terms of gainful employment. One of the keys to unlocking poverty is to provide people with marketable skills that allow them to make their way in the economy via a chance for gainful employment.

    I’ve often felt that providing skills traning or educational opportunites to those who find themselves homeless would open up a window for some who otherwise simply don’t have an edge in the job market. (Of course, that would require a system that does more than simply put a bandaid on the social complexities of homelessness, and have a committment to putting in place solutions that have an enduring and long term effect.)

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