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Just Get a Job

“Why don’t they just get a job?” You’ve heard it. I’ve heard it. And you bet that they’ve heard it. “They” being people experiencing homelessness, people like Zack. He addressed this phenomenon during a recent focus group for homeless youth. “A lot of the reasons why many of us don’t get heard is the stigma. ‘Homeless people, just go get a job.’ Stuff like that. And I’ll be honest… I used to think like that. When I was growing up, my situation was bad and stuff, but any time I saw a homeless person my first thought was ‘stop using drugs and get a job.’ Then I became homeless and I realized how wrong I was.”

The job question is fair in spirit. Most people can credit a place of employment as the source of their quality access to food, healthcare, and a home of their own, so it makes sense that when someone sees a person lacking all of these things they assume that a job must be the missing piece of the puzzle. There is nothing inherently wrong with this question, just the silence that usually follows. I mean, have you ever really heard a good answer to this, something more meaningful than assumptions about drug abuse and laziness? If not, the reason is simple: very few people understand how difficult acquiring a job can be for the unsheltered, particularly the young. It took becoming homeless himself for Zack to grasp the uphill nature of the job struggle.

Anyone who knows him would laugh to hear Zack be accused of laziness. For Zack, putting in the work has never been an issue. A naturally driven, passionate person, he found himself increasingly frustrated as he struck out with job applications. He’d walk all over Nashua asking for hiring managers, but he never felt welcome as they looked him over. He knew he didn’t have nice clothes, but he felt that if people would give him a chance to prove himself, then they’d quickly see what a devoted worker he could be. The larger issue, of course, was that Zack did not have an I.D, one of the most pervasive barriers youth face in acquiring a job. It is not uncommon for young people to lack I.D. in general, and that goes double for those experiencing homelessness, many of whom have not earned their driver’s license. Some can’t afford an I.D, whereas others had one and lost it along with much of what they used to own. A further barrier–less well known but extremely common in the homeless community–is a lack of documentation to get an I.D. in the first place.

The vicious cycle that many homeless youth encounter goes like this: you need an I.D. to get a job, but you need a birth certificate to get an I.D. And here’s the catch: you need an I.D. to get a birth certificate. So when Zack went to get his birth certificate he encountered a frustrating loop. If you think this sounds discouraging, just imagine how Zack felt; in fact, he had some stronger words on the subject. Despite his advantage of knowing where he was born (many don’t!), he still would have to manage the additional hurdles of getting in touch with his birth place’s record’s office without a phone and paying for that record without any money.

All of this just to apply for a job.

But thankfully for Zack, this process did not hold him back for long. Stepping Stones helps youth like Zack get the documents they need by going with them to their town hall, using our I.D. to sign as their witness, and paying the fee. After we helped Zack get his birth certificate, he got an I.D, worked a few jobs as he finished his LNA certification, and now he works full-time as a care-giver. He has a place of his own and even has spare time to volunteer and participate in local homeless advocacy groups. Most significantly, he has a vehicle. If he didn’t have that, his story might look different.

Zack was able to pay his way through the hard times by taking a construction job that asked him to commute all over the state. A job like that is totally out of reach for the many youth in similar shoes who do not have a car–see “Roadblocks” for more on how transportation issues provide serious barriers for youth employment. Their job opportunities are limited to walking distance from wherever they sleep at night, or else they can take a bus within the city limits, but the bus schedule adds one more logistical layer they must consider. Some feel comfortable asking management to limit their availability to shifts inside of the bus schedule, but others are either too afraid or embarrassed to ask and wind up walking a long way in the morning or midnight dark. In some respects, getting to and from work can be as exhausting as the job itself, so it is very common for us to see an increase in exhaustion and fatigue in our youth once they find employment.

Where do they rest after so much labor? Well, that depends. Some of them are lucky enough to have secured housing, but most are still working on that step. The job and eventual paycheck will certainly help, but where will they sleep in the meantime? Most shelters have curfews, another factor they must consider when offered a late shift. Those with vehicles might sleep in the backseat, but that does little to replenish their reserves for the next shift. Damien, for instance, works two jobs and is applying to a third; we rarely see him at the drop-in center because he is usually out working or else sleeping off a shift in his car, but on the rare occasion he comes in it is always for the same thing: to shower, then pass out in one of our comfortable beds. I think most people know the feeling of needing to spend some portion of a day off “catching up on sleep,” but for Damien that impulse is more urgent and necessary so he can keep trying to break his way through the cycle of labor and fatigue.

Getting a job is harder than it sounds for almost everyone, but it is a rare case that a homeless youth has the support system in effect to simply leave the street corner and successfully land a position. Starting a new job is usually stressful for anyone, but those with shelter to return to at the end of the day possess built-in comforts that make it easy to keep coming back. With a guaranteed place to recharge their batteries they more consistently show up and grow their job marketability. Those without shelter spend their shifts wracked with anxiety about what will happen between when they clock out and their next shift. Zack and Damien didn’t “just get a job,” but endured a pain-staking process to acquire a small source of income. Then they did it again. And again. At the end of it all, only one of them is housed, but they both keep working hard to make progress.

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