The Working Homeless

By Skip Barry

This article is from the March/April 1998 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

This article is from the March/April 1998 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 216 cover

On the day before Christmas, President Clinton announced he wanted to help the homeless. "As long as there are children waking up on Christmas morning without the comfort of a warm home, we have more work to do," Clinton said. He will ask Congress to approve a record $1.15 billion to pay for shelters, but also for programs aimed at preventing homelessness. This means money for job training, child care, drug and alcohol treatment and mental-health services.

But rising homeless rates can no longer be attributed to addiction and mental illness, although many of the homeless need treatment for these problems. Nor will short-term job training and child care ensure jobs which can cover everyday household expenses. This is clearly a problem since a growing number of those in shelters work. Half of those in Virginia shelters held jobs last year. In 1986, 11-15% of those in Atlanta shelters held jobs; by 1997, this doubled to 23-37%.

The poverty rate for young families headed by a full-time worker tripled between 1973 and 1994, so it is not surprising that the number of homeless children is growing. A National Coalition for the Homeless study found the number of children living in Virginia shelters rose from 3,912 in 1985 to 14,000 in 1996. Half of New York's 140,000 homeless are under 18. But many more don't make the official statistics. They live week to week in automobiles, cheap motel rooms, or makeshift dwellings while others are forced to live doubled up with family or friends.

New welfare laws aren't helping. Last year a survey of 15,000 people living in homeless rescue missions found more than 20% became homeless after being cut off from government assistance. With many states' two-year time-limit coming due this year, this will only get worse. In 1997, 92% of cities surveyed said there aren't enough low-skilled jobs around to meet federal work requirements.

Though media pundits like to blame homelessness on personal deficiencies and a "skills mismatch" between new high-tech jobs and today's workers, the real culprit is the loss of better paying manufacturing jobs coupled with the rise of lower paying service jobs. These trends are only made worse by political decisions allowing the minimum wage and social spending to drop, and deunionization and globalization to continue. The nation is whistling past the graveyard when it sweeps the suffering of homeless people out of sight and mind.

Skip Barry, a member of the D&S collective, works at the Bristol Lodge homeless shelter in Waltham, Mass.

Resources: A Status Report on Hunger and Homelessness in America's Cities, The U.S. Conference of Mayors (December 1997); Implementing Welfare Reform in America's Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors (November 1997); Homelessness in America: Unabated and Increasing, National Coalition for the Homeless (December 1997); Access Delayed, Access Denied, National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (December 1997).
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