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Unemployment is a prominent factor in the persistence of homelessness across the world. Being unemployed while experiencing homelessness also makes it difficult to exit homelessness, and people experiencing homelessness face a range of barriers to employment. However, even though unemployment rates are high among people experiencing homelessness, the evidence also suggests that many people experiencing homelessness want to work and, with the right support and opportunities, can achieve positive employment outcomes.

Homelessness Key Takeaways

  • People experiencing homelessness are unemployed or underemployed at disproportionately high rates, but many want to work.
  • Individual barriers to employment include mental and physical health challenges, substance use issues, and lack of vocational training.
  • Institutional barriers to employment include inhospitable labor market conditions, discrimination in hiring practices, bureaucratic red tape, and strict shelter policies.
  • Evidence-based interventions for individual barriers emphasize recognizing the unique needs and challenges of people experiencing homelessness.
  • Policy recommendations for overcoming institutional barriers include “Ban the Box” and “Ban the Address” legislation, employment-based intake questions, and hiring people with lived experience of homelessness at service provider agencies.

People experiencing homelessness face several barriers that make it difficult to find and maintain employment. These include individual barriers like mental health and substance use challenges and systemic or institutional barriers like discrimination in hiring practices and shelter regulations.

Individual barriers

Mental health challenges are a common individual barrier to securing and maintaining employment. Rates of mental health challenges, including depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, personality disorder, self-harm, and attempted suicide are disproportionately high among people experiencing homelessness. Rates of serious mental illness (including major depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder) were between 25-30% of the population experiencing homelessness, both sheltered and unsheltered. This finding, combined with the findings that jobseekers with mental health challenges face difficulty securing and maintaining employment, suggests that people experiencing homelessness with mental health challenges face a compounded set of employment barriers. The episodic nature of some mental illnesses makes it difficult for job seekers with mental health challenges to be consistently available and highly functioning for work. Trauma from past experiences with homelessness played a factor in dissuading newly housed jobseekers from pursuing employment because they feared their anxieties associated with their trauma would resurface on the job.

Challenges related to substance use and addiction can also pose barriers to employment for people experiencing homelessness. Consistent substance use was negatively associated with long-term labor force participation both for the housed and unhoused populations, but people experiencing homelessness were more likely to have substance abuse challenges than their housed peers. Survey respondents in a Canadian study of adults experiencing homelessness with mental health issues expressed that it was difficult to hide substance use from potential employers when searching for jobs. Additionally, employed people experiencing homelessness who have substance use disorders are more likely to have lower-level jobs that provide less income than those without substance use challenges. Physical disability is also a well-documented barrier to employment for people experiencing homelessness. Workers with disabilities – regardless of housing status – are underrepresented in the labor force and tend to earn lower wages and hold lower-status jobs than those without Disabilities. In the Los Angeles area, about 16% of all people experiencing homelessness and 19% of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness have a physical disability. In San Francisco, upwards of 23% of people experiencing homelessness reported having a physical disability. Not only can physical disability prevent workers from performing specific tasks, but it can also make it difficult for individuals to access work sites.

Jobseekers experiencing homelessness often lack vocational skills or workforce training, which serves as an additional barrier to employment. One study found that people experiencing homelessness are more likely to lack skillsets like stress management, social skills, independent living skills, and skills for vocational engagement, all of which affect an individual’s job readiness. A study found that youth experiencing homelessness had low levels of educational and vocational preparation, which negatively impacts job prospects and career mobility. Young adults experiencing homelessness are alienated from formal employment for many reasons, including disconnection from educational and vocational settings.

Institutional barriers

 The authors note that the commonly held belief that stable, long-term employment is key in solving homelessness does not align with what people experiencing homelessness actually face in the job market: temporary work, inconsistent pay, and hostile relationships with employers. Furthermore, the employment opportunities generally available to people experiencing homelessness are not only precarious but, in many cases, undesirable, dangerous, and/or exploitative. Bureaucratic barriers can also be factors that discourage stable employment among people experiencing homelessness. Findings from a 2010 survey of people experiencing homelessness in Sacramento, CA found that 35% of respondents reported things like long waiting lists, red tape, and lack of agency follow-up as reasons why they felt employment assistance agencies were not helpful in connecting them with work.

Additionally, homeless service systems are often not asking the right kinds of questions – specifically about the employment needs and interests of job seekers experiencing homelessness – during the intake process with new clients. Discrimination during the hiring process is a major barrier to employment for people experiencing homelessness. Homeless jobseekers face discrimination in the hiring process when they are unable to provide a home address on their applications or use the address of a shelter. Even individuals with lived experience of homelessness who have found stable housing face discrimination based on gaps in their work history due to previous homelessness, mental health challenges, and substance use. Criminal history is also a source of discrimination in this context. Despite the passing in many states of “Ban the Box” legislation, which limits the ability of employers to consider criminal records during the hiring process, many employers still discriminate against applicants with criminal histories even if their crime is not relevant to the job or occurred a long time ago. So entrenched is this practice that some homeless job seekers with criminal records report that they avoid applying for jobs altogether because they anticipate rejection.

Occupational licenses and certifications for many professions are also commonly denied to those with criminal histories. Black people experiencing homelessness face compounded layers of employment discrimination – one study found a 50% gap in resume callback rates between applicants with Black-associated names and White-associated names. Even companies with organizational diversity statements were found by researchers to be no less likely to discriminate based on race during the hiring process than companies with no diversity commitment. It is also found that shelter regulations could serve as barriers to stable employment for those staying in emergency shelters or temporary housing. These regulations include strict schedules or curfews that do not make exceptions for work hours, unsatisfactory sleeping arrangements that leave individuals unrested for their shifts, and the lack of security for personal belongings when individuals are away from the shelter at work.

Homelessness Individual Placement and Support Programs

Also known as “supported employment,” individual placement and support (IPS) is an evidence-based practice aimed at improving employment outcomes for job seekers with severe mental illness. A study found that 40-60% of people enrolled in supported employment programs get a job, compared with just 20% of similar individuals. While not specifically designed for people experiencing homelessness with severe mental illness, the intervention has been used for homeless jobseekers and has yielded positive outcomes. It is found that a larger program results in positive non-vocational outcomes among homeless youth with mental illness, including increased self-esteem, housing stability, and decreased attention deficit problems.

The components of Individual Placement and Support for benefits are as follows

  • Services focused on competitive employment – the goal is to help participants obtain and maintain permanent competitive jobs as opposed to day treatment or sheltered work.
  • Eligibility based on consumer choice – the only requirement for inclusion is a desire to work in a competitive job. Job seekers should not be excluded due to mental or physical health challenges, substance use challenges, lack of job readiness, or disability.
  • Rapid job search – Job Portals Programs must avoid lengthy pre-assessment and training periods to expedite the job search process.
  • Integration of rehabilitation and mental health – Staff should meet and interact regularly with treatment teams that work with the jobseekers.
  • Attention to consumer preferences – IPS program staff should work with job seekers to find individualized jobs based on job seeker preference, strengths, and work experience.
  • Time-unlimited and individualized support – IPS programs should continue to support clients even after they have found employment and are individualized to the specific situation of each worker/jobseeker.

Social Enterprise Intervention

Another evidence-based intervention for helping people experiencing homelessness find and maintain employment is the Social Enterprise Intervention (SEI). A social enterprise is a revenue-generating venture established to create positive social impact, and the SEI model equips people experiencing homelessness to establish their own social enterprises. In the context of youth experiencing homelessness, SEI seeks to divert homeless youth away from high-risk behaviors like substance use and crime by engaging them in vocational training and mental health services. In addition to providing youth with vocational and business skills, research suggests that SEI improves life satisfaction, family contact, peer support, depressive symptoms, and linkages to services among these youth. A study found that 67% of young people enrolled in an SEI program remained employed ten months after the completion of an SEI program, compared to just 25% of a similar control group.

The SEI model has four stages

  • Vocational skills acquisition – a four-month course in which youth receive education and technical training concerning specific vocational skills.
  • Small-business skills acquisition – a separate four-month course on business-related skills such as accounting, budgeting, marketing, and management.
  • Social enterprise formation and distribution – a year-long stage in which participating youth establish a social enterprise in a supportive, empowering, and community-based setting.
  • Clinical services – mental health services provided by a clinician and/or case managers, interwoven across the entire 20-month period.

Work Skills Training Programs

The phases are as follows

  • Strengths and abilities assessment – five-day program to explore job seeker strengths, weaknesses, abilities, and interests.
  • Regular class meetings – participants attend class five days per week for 14 weeks. Class sizes are small, generally with 12-15 individuals. Each week of class focuses on a different subject, ranging from career exploration to career goal-setting, to appropriate workplace behavior.
  • Internship – after classes are complete, a partner employment agency arranges a 6-week internship for participants.
  • Post-graduation – the employment agency continues to assist participants in searching for employment after the completion of the program.

Transitional Jobs Programs

Another promising intervention is the Transitional Job (TJ) model, which connects job seekers experiencing homelessness with temporary, competitive jobs that combine real work with skill development and supportive services. Unlike the IPS model, which is not time-limited, TJ programs are intended to be temporary and act as a stepping-stone for participants entering the labor market. The TJ model is appealing to service providers because it generally operates as a form of subsidized public or private employment, and thus is ideal for participants receiving benefits. TJ programs aim to help participants begin work as quickly as possible and typically offer a nurturing work environment, additional training, and enhanced connections to other services that help job seekers experiencing homelessness succeed in the labor market after they have transitioned out of their temporary job.

The core program elements of a TJ program include

  • Orientation & assessment – an individualized approach that identifies participant strengths and barriers.
  • Job readiness and life skills classes – vocational skills training to support a successful workplace Behaviors.
  • Employment-focused case management – helps participants coordinate services and manage individual barriers.
  • A transitional job – the program connects each participant with a transitional job, which provides real, wage-paying work experience and development of vocational skills.
  • Unsubsidized job placement and retention – the program helps participants find a job in the labor force to replace their temporary job and then provides support to help participants stay in that job.
  • Linkages to education and training – support further career and skills development.

Job Coaches

Evidence suggests that jobseekers experiencing homelessness are more likely to find and sustain competitive employment if they have access to a job coach. Support from a job coach improves employment outcomes for all age groups but is especially impactful with homeless jobseekers under the age of 25 years old. Evidence also suggests that receiving support from a job coach may strengthen the jobseeker’s motivation to continue applying for jobs even after rejections.

Homelessness Demographics

According to Homeless Demographic Survey, over 50% of single adults (24 and older) experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Los Angeles County are unemployed. Of those unemployed, approximately half reported that they are actively looking for work. The same survey found that 49% of unsheltered adults in family units are unemployed, but a much higher percentage of them (36%) are actively looking for work than single adults. Additionally, 46% of unsheltered adults cited unemployment or financial reason as a primary reason why they are homeless. According to the same survey, about 20% of single adults experiencing unsheltered homelessness in Los Angeles  County are working, including full-time, part-time, seasonal, and self-employment compared to about 32% of unsheltered adults in family units. Not only are people experiencing homelessness employed at low rates, but evidence shows that those who are employed report very low annual earnings.

The intersection of unemployment and homelessness is particularly salient for Black people experiencing homelessness because unemployment among Black people worldwide is already disproportionately high due to structural and institutional racism. Due to International Policy failure,  Black people face systematic discrimination in the labor market based on their race and earn lower wages than white workers on average. In January 2020, prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the national unemployment rate among Black adults was 6% compared to 3.1% among white adults, 4.3% among Latinx/Hispanic adults, and 3% among Asian adults. Additionally, higher incarceration rates for Black and Latinx people present an additional barrier to finding employment and housing. The incarceration rate among Black Americans is nearly six times the incarceration rate for whites and almost double the rate for Latinx/Hispanic adults.

Unduplicated Totals

Recently, an analysis of ACS data by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found an increase in what they described as “doubled-up” households in the aftermath of the housing bubble and the resulting recession. They defined doubled-up as any additional adult in the household who was not the head of household or their spouse or partner. After reading these reports, CCH realized that with a more refined definition, ACS data could be used to estimate those who met the homeless definition of doubled up. Of note, however, is that the ACS does not explicitly ask if members of the household are living there due to loss of housing or economic hardship. Therefore, our methodology was designed to determine who was most likely living in a doubled-up homeless situation. Because we could not know for certain, when the data was ambiguous, we erred on the side of not including someone as homeless, which resulted in a conservative estimate. This analysis defines doubled-up as additional family members or non-relatives in a household who are not minor children, step-children, spouses, or unmarried partners of the head of household and the household is at 125% or below the federal poverty level.

We created a number of exclusions that we thought would not typically be viewed as a homeless situation.

  • Single adult children living with parents who often move back home for reasons other than economic Hardship.
  • Relatives of the head of household who were over 65 often live with family due to health reasons.
  • Grandchildren living with grandparents for whom the grandparent claims responsibility for basic needs.
  • Roommates, lodgers, and people in institutions or group lodgings.

We did include adult children living with parents who had children of their own, but if they were under the age of 25, we only included them if they were living in an overcrowded situation (more than two people per bedroom). For the total figures for the analysis, we added the number of doubled-up individuals from the ACS analysis to the number served in the shelter system. We then subtracted anyone who had been sheltered but also had been living with friends and family at any time during the calendar year to avoid duplication. The data includes people living on the street who were in contact with service providers. We did not attempt to estimate those living on the street or other places not meant for human habitation who had no contact with service providers. This estimate also does not include data on those living in institutions such as jails or mental institutions who were homeless prior to entering.

Policy Recommendations to Address Structural Barriers for Homelessness

Whereas the above intervention strategies are designed to help job seekers experiencing homelessness overcome individual barriers to employment, researchers and practitioners also recommend policy reforms to address institutional and structural barriers to employment for people experiencing homelessness.

Ban the Box / Ban the Address

“Ban the Box,” or fair chance hiring legislation, which prevents employers from asking job seekers about their criminal history on job applications, exists in 35 states and over 150 cities and counties across the country. However, in about two-thirds of these states and municipalities, the legislation only applies to public-sector jobs. A federal ban the box policy and an expansion of this type of legislation to the private sector will help jobseekers experiencing homelessness who have criminal histories secure employment. A “Ban the Address” policy, which would remove questions about the home address on job applications, is similar to ban the box but is specifically intended to support jobseekers experiencing homelessness. In addition, businesses, government agencies, and non-profit organizations can create programs where they provide P.O. boxes or mailing addresses for job applicants who are experiencing homelessness.

Enhancing Mainstream Social Services

Access to mainstream, federally funded employment resources has not kept pace with the urgent need for services among people experiencing homelessness. In other words, communities and states have difficulty accessing funding for employment services, which could come from mainstream employment programs like vocational rehabilitation programs, Workforce Investment Act-funded employment services, Community Services Block Grants, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Block Grants, and Medicaid. States and communities must do a better job of prioritizing employment as a solution to homelessness and leverage federal dollars toward this end.

Coordinated Entry System Intake Questions

Mandates to continuums of care use a centralized, coordinated intake process, widely known as a coordinated entry system (CES) for their homeless services systems. The CES intake process involves an assessment of each individual’s needs and preferences to connect them with the appropriate housing and homeless services. However, CES assessments do not necessarily address the employment needs and preferences of people seeking homeless services. Continuums of care can add questions about employment history and preferences to their CES assessments to better connect people experiencing homelessness with vocational training programs, subsidized employment programs, or job coaches.

Hiring People with Lived Experience at Service Provider Agencies

One way that service provider agencies can be addressing discrimination in the hiring process is to institute policies that ensure that lived experience of homelessness is a desired and valued qualification in the hiring process. By bringing in people who have experienced homelessness in the past, service provider agencies can start to shift at an organizational level towards a system that does not discriminate against those who are currently homeless, or those with substance use and/or mental and physical health challenges. Having people with lived experience on staff also helps create mentorship relationships and peer support networks that can help boost self-esteem and determination among job seekers experiencing homelessness.

Flexible Shelter Policies

To address the barriers to employment that strict shelter rules pose, shelter providers can institute policies that allow for a more flexible schedule that allows people to build their days around meaningful activities like employment. Shelters could provide exceptions to curfew rules to those who have night jobs or whose hours conflict with the curfew. Shelters can also provide secure lockers for the personal belongings of those who have jobs or are actively seeking work so that they can leave the shelter without fearing the theft of their belongings.

Preserve and build deeply affordable homes

Ending the affordable housing crisis requires a major investment in developing homes affordable to the lowest-income people through the National Housing Trust Fund. The underlying cause of the affordable housing crisis is the severe lack of affordable rental homes for lowest-income households – the only segment of the population for which there is an absolute shortage of affordable and available homes. Because the private sector cannot on its own build or maintain homes at a price these families can afford, the federal government must play a leading role. Governments should also preserve our nation’s existing affordable housing infrastructure, including public housing.

Provide rental assistance

Despite the growing gap between wages and housing costs, only one in four families get the housing assistance it needs because of chronic underfunding. Policymakers should call for a major expansion of Housing Choice Vouchers and/or the creation of a targeted renters’ tax credit to help families keep more of their incomes for other essentials like food, medicine, education, and transportation.

Prevent families from facing evictions and homelessness

The country needs a National Housing Stabilization Fund, a new national program to help prevent evictions and, in worst cases, homelessness. The program could provide temporary financial assistance to help cover rent for households experiencing unexpected economic shocks (e.g., loss of work hours, unreimbursed medical bills, a broken-down car).

Protect renters from discrimination and abuse

Policymakers should support a broad array of renter protections, including federal legislation to ban housing discrimination on the basis of source of income, gender identity, and sexual orientation, and increased enforcement of existing fair housing laws, including state and local obligations to affirmatively further fair housing.



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