photo © 2010 Jonathan Wade | more info (via: Wylio)We have all heard –and perhaps spoken–the phrases, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “You get what you work for,” “Hard work pays off,” and “Live the American Dream.” We have all driven past men and women in our city intersections holding signs that say “Will work for food” or “Homeless. Please help.” Probably the sight of them has sparked in us some combination of pity, guilt, and disgust. Many of us have thought or said, “Get a job!” as we speed past, avoiding the sign-bearers’ desperate eyes. Most likely, we are not so much heartless or uncaring as confused and frustrated.
In a society where there is supposedly equal opportunity for all, why are some unable or unwilling to work for a living? Why would anyone choose to beg on a street corner when there are homeless shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens throughout our cities? We are doing our part, we reckon, by giving to the local shelter, praying for these men and women, and serving in the local food pantry. Yet the problem persists.
I started out working with the homeless population in Richmond in 2004, and continue to provide economic opportunities to more than 15 homeless and at-risk individuals per year through our AmeriCorps program. Through the years, I have come to realize that the only true way to end homelessness is for people to work. I also came to realize that unemployment was not just a problem for homeless individuals but the infinitely larger population of those living in poverty in our city.
I spend much of my time these days with the folks who live in the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) public housing complex of Hillside Court. Less than 25% of the 446 households report having any form of employment income. For those who do report employment income, the average annual wage is roughly $13,000. The average household income for all households in Hillside court is $8,600. Hillside is not unique. It has only slightly lower employment and income when compared to other RRHA communities. There are a total of 3,605 households living in the six RRHA public complexes in our city. Only 831 of those households report employment as their primary source of income. That means these communities have a 77% unemployment rate!
Of course this is not the whole picture. 71% of the households do have income from government funded programs. 14% receive public assistance largely in the form of TANF (temporary aid to needy families), 25% receive social security income for a disability, 17% receive social security income because of age, and an additional 14% receive other forms of social security income which I am assuming is for disabled children for a total of 57% of households receiving social security. Only 54 households have no reported income.
Perhaps you are wondering how people live on $8,600 per year. The answer is incredibly low rental rates. The average rental rate in RRHA public housing is $177 per month which includes all utilities. Basically, without RRHA public housing those living exclusively off of social security and public assistance would have no place to go and would likely find themselves on the street corner or in the homeless shelter.
There are a total of 8,959 “official” residents in RRHA housing complexes, 4,631 of which are children under the age of 18. I say “official” because for every “official” adult resident there is a sister, son, cousin, boyfriend living in these apartments off the books. My guess would be that there are well over 1,000 unofficial residents in who call RRHA public housing complexes home. Just for the purposes of comparison, the total estimated “homeless” population in our city at any given point in time is around 1,000 adults and roughly 150 children according to Homeward’s most recent point in time count. Compare this to the roughly 10,000 individuals who call RRHA home. So every time you see someone begging for money on the street or hear a plea to help the homeless, remember that there are more than 10 unseen individuals whose financial picture is only slightly brighter.
It should be no surprise that the number one request we receive from the residents of Hillside is that we help them gain employment. For the past month we have been doing a series of “listening” meetings around the topic of employment to try to figure out exactly how we can help our friends get jobs. As you can imagine there are a number of barriers facing our friends. These include – lack of education, lack of childcare, lack of transportation, lack of experience, lack of access to computers and on-line job resources, lack of phones, lack of knowledge about open positions, lack of interviewing skills, lack of motivation, lack of a resumes, felony convictions, lack of identification documents, and the list goes on and on.
After listening long enough to get a clear picture as to why 77% of our residents did not work, we asked them to pick the two issues they felt were creating the greatest hindrance to them obtaining employment. As I predicted transportation was the number on concern, but I was actually surprised when the group unanimously voted “lack of motivation” as equal important.
Over the last two weeks we have been unpacking these issues. Our job seekers have convinced me that if we somehow overcame the transportation issue and we provided people with individual “encouragers” to help them navigate the employment systems and overcome their barriers, that the vast majority of the 77% unemployed residents of RRHA would be able to obtain and maintain employment.
Out of this conversation, we are starting an initiative to help our friends get jobs. The central element of our approach will be to connect each of the job seekers with a “job coach” who will provide the motivation and accountability to help them overcome their individual barriers. In addition, we are seeking individuals who will help our friends “navigate” the various employment related systems including on-line employment resources, employment centers, Department of Rehabilitative services, and other programs designed to help our friends. In the past we have simply referred our friends to these resources and they tend not to find them helpful. I believe if we teamed them up with a “navigator” who knows what questions to ask and how to advocate on their behalf we would be better able to tap into these resources.
As we unpacked the transportation issue, we found that in most cases it is a “gap” issue. The job seeker cannot get to the interview or to work for the period between the start date and the first pay check. Once they receive their first paycheck, there will be the ability to hire a private transportation service or pay for bus tickets. Of course the bus does not run out into the counties where the majority of the jobs are but we are hoping to find or create “pay as you go” options for those who have this kind of on-going need.
To address the front end “gap” issue, we are seeking volunteers who will help with the transportation needs of our friends to and from interviews. In addition, we need donations of gas cards so that we can run our Embrace van to help those who secure employment in jobs not on the bus line. We all know that transportation is a tough issue and we do not have all the answers so we welcome any ideas you may have. I would also love to know how other cities are addressing this issue.
The only thing I know is that employment is the only way to permanently end poverty and I also know that as Christians we are called to walk in solidarity with the poor. We all want to see Congress balance the budget. Many are in support of cutting federal entitlement programs. But are we willing to be a part of the solution? Are we willing to literally walk with people on this journey? Are we willing to use the assets we have, for example our cars, to help them do what we say they need to do – get a job? Are we willing to move beyond charity and help people move away from dependence on public programs?
For those wondering how to respond to panhandlers, I suggest you read the post “Panhandlers: To Give or Not to Give.”
If you would like to help us address the issues noted above and help people get a job, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.