It Isn’t that People Don’t Want to Work. They Just Don’t Want to Work and Still be Homeless.

hiring for work sign

This is a true story.

There’s a place where people drag themselves to work day in and day out by the millions. They toil diligently in thankless employment positions where the labor is as intense as the scorching summer sun. But in the end, the money they earn from one or maybe even two full-time jobs still isn’t enough to afford them a humble two-bedroom apartment.

Under the streetlights in vacant parking lots, homeless parents scramble to educate their children on used laptops in the backs of minivans. They spend hours on the phone trying to explain to cyber charter school personnel why they can’t verify their addresses.

Let’s be honest. This is a place where it is easier to get a gun than an education. Bang. High school dropout rates shoot through the roof as homeless students fall uncounted to the bottom of the barrel. Their futures clatter to the floor. Their faces fade into the background.

Someone has to get stepped on in order to lay the new concrete evenly. Empty luxury apartment buildings tower, leaving little room for the 7 million affordable homes we’d need to end the growing housing crisis. Who are we saving these posh little condos for? Who are we saving?

Simultaneously, rental prices have outpaced wage increases for two consecutive decades. This is a dark, familiar town full of empty promises and broken dreams. You live here, as do I.

But on the other side of America, a very different story is being told. It’s about the over-abundance of hiring signs. All the workers are just sitting around collecting stimulus checks because they’re too lazy to get a job. This has been the narrative for far too long. It must stop.

Dear fellow journalists, bloggers, and researchers, please stop telling the world there are lazy people in America who just don’t want to work. It isn’t true. People do want to work. They just don’t want to work and still be homeless.

Here’s a Window: Crack it Open and See What’s Really Going on Behind the Glass

Perhaps homelessness is a world you’ve never personally witnessed. Perhaps you believe this state of being could never touch you.

Did you know that in our current economy, a jaw-dropping 59% of US workers are just one paycheck away from homelessness? Even if you’re not among them, you’re among them. From a purely mathematical standpoint, this statistic shows that it’s either you or the guy standing next to you. There are 20 people in a room. Eleven of them are one paycheck away from homelessness.

Along comes Corporate America to offer everyone coming out of a historical unemployment slump a job. But there’s a catch. These jobs feature the same unlivable wages as before. The bill to increase the minimum wage gets shot down, a slap in the face to workers everywhere. In its place is a more profound wealth gap closing around the overwhelming majority of people.

In a thought-provoking Twitter thread, which is deservingly on its way to virality, author and CEO Dan Price reveals some stats that really bring perspective to the issue. To paraphrase, here are some of the highlights:

  • The pandemic made it possible for eight new people to possess $100 billion. Previously, this description fit only one person
  • On average, CEO’s make 320x more than the people they employ
  • $3 trillion in new money was printed in order to keep the stock market afloat and create a future where even more billionaires usurp the working class’s wealth

Even though these statistics are public information, we are still directing anger at the individuals collecting a measly $300 in unemployment. For them, time and moratoriums are running out.

Many of us are not in a much better position. How have we become so engrossed, so enamored with the shiny possibility of a millionaire or billionaire lifestyle that only a hair’s fraction of the general public could ever reach, that we resort to denying the basic needs of people who are on this boat with us – a ship that is sinking?

A Large Percentage of Homeless People Are the Working Poor

The latest NIMBY argument is rooted in the idea that we must somehow choose between helping the homeless community and helping the working poor. This position is ridiculous because, in many cases, these two marginalized groups of people are the same.

In pre-pandemic America, 44% of homeless people were employed. As a point of reference, only 10% to 15% of homeless people are addicted to illegal drugs. This means more homeless people are employed than addicted to illegal substances. To hear the media spin on this, it would be easy (but wrong) to draw the opposite conclusion.

Given this information, it’s easy to see that we are taking up the wrong battle in our war against homelessness. If we truly wanted to end the crisis, we would spend more money tackling poverty, not less. We should not champion other issues like addiction and mental illness over poverty because they are secondary causes. Poverty, wage stagnation, and wealth inequality are at the heart of the three top causes of homelessness. This is not an either-or conversation. It is the only conversation of note.

In this Post-Pandemic Climate, We Need to Build Up. Sadly, we are Too Busy Tearing Everything Down.

In the aftermath of a severe economic downslide, with the threat of a record-breaking eviction crisis ever-present, the fact that wages continue to remain stagnant while rents and mortgages skyrocket is an absolute abomination. If you don’t want to have a surplus of hiring signs, perhaps you could consider paying your employees a livable wage.

Attention Corporate America: As it stands, not working for you is the only card many of us have left in our deck. Pull it we shall, thrusting it atop the pile while declaring W-A-R.

May your restaurants and chain stores remain empty until our pockets are lined with earnings reflective of our labor, until every abandoned house is repaired and full, until every street corner and homeless shelter is empty enough to hear your thoughts.

As a homeless education journalist, I am likely the only person who sincerely hopes that someday my job no longer exists- because there is no homelessness left to write about or speak of. We can get there, but not without livable wages and affordable housing.

Contact your legislators about developing the kind of America where everyone can afford to live. And by this, we mean in a house, not in a shelter, under a bridge, or stuffed inside a hot metal container like stored produce- an actual house.

Cynthia Griffith

Cynthia Griffith


Cynthia Griffith is a freelance writer dedicated to social justice and environmental issues.

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