This week, yet again, someone forwarded me an article about a new employment initiative for people that are homeless. Hold on to your hats, this employment initiative focused on street cleaning in the downtown of a major metropolitan area. Tell me whether you have heard of such a thing before. (As an aside, why does every community that does this think they are the first to think of it and that doing so will put an end to panhandling?)
A deficit orientation towards assisting people who are homeless or formerly homeless re-entering the labor force needs a critical re-think. Here are five big problems I have with initiatives like street cleaning done by people who are homeless:
1. Match people to jobs based upon strengths
Problem is – and here is a broad brush stroke argument – we don’t take time to learn what people are good at and match them to jobs and careers related to that match. We assume people who are/were homeless can only handle entry level menial jobs like street cleaning. For certain this is totally aligned to skills, aptitudes and interest of some, but far below the intellect, capabilities and desires of most.
2. “Practice jobs” do not guarantee or prepare people for “real jobs”
While the evidence is clear that supportive employment is the way to go for those with the most complex, chronic histories, we continue to use day labor and employment readiness schemes rather than lasting, sustainable employment. For those that claim that initiatives like street cleaning are the first step towards achieving this, I call bullshit. To me it is like saying transitional housing is necessary prior to having permanent housing.
3. It is housing first, not employment first
The key to success is housing first, not employment first. We should house people then focus on employment, not focusing on employment as a pathway to housing. Undoubtedly, a stable income source will be very important for ongoing housing stability. If that income is employed income, then even all the more reason to ensure the employment is sustainable.
4. An address (or lack of one) is a discriminatory job prerequisite
Homelessness should not be a job prerequisite. Homelessness should not be seen as a qualification. And just because one may spend a lot of time on the street, that does not make them qualified (or even interested) in cleaning a street. That’s like saying, “Iain spends a lot of time in airports therefore he would make a great air traffic controller.” It doesn’t work that way. On top of this is a vexing presupposition that it was people who are homeless who made the streets dirty, therefore they should clean them up.
5. This should be about social justice, not charity
We need to examine labor force participation through a lens of social justice, not charity. A number of these initiatives that do the likes of street cleaning do not pay a livable wage, may not even consider it real employment (providing people an honorarium or stipend rather than formal paid employment with tax deductions, etc.), and rarely if ever offer protections to injured workers. Let us also remember that these schemes are almost always created by non-homeless individuals who believe they are giving back and creating opportunities for people through this type of initiative when it is really their own self-interests that are being taken care of in the process.