Sunday, July 29, 2007

Is "getting a job" the solution to homelessness?

Bill Dusty, a fellow Western Mass blogger (Earth to Bill), had a comment on my post about the two young men I've known for about ten years who are homeless and currently living in a tent. Bill said what a lot of people would say: they need to get a job and find a way to overcome their background.

I'd like to see them have jobs, too. Working has psychological benefits that people can barely intuit when they're jobless.

But will working deliver you from homelessness and keep you in a home? I want to look at this assumption a little more closely.

First, let's not pay too much attention as to whether there are actually jobs to be had. Let's pretend that the local Wendy's franchise had not just closed, throwing 300 people out of work, and that Jerry, my friend, gets a job at Wendy's.

There really is no such thing as fulltime work in the service industry. My nephew Steve worked 30 hours a week at Wendy's, but it was actually 27.5-- you don't get paid for lunch or breaks.

Steve was paid minimum wage-- $7.50 an hour. So Jerry's gross pay would be $202.50 a week; if he claimed himself as a deduction, he'd take home $171.39 weekly, or, at 4 and a third weeks a month, $747 a month.

Steve worked second shift; his hours were divided among three days. So Jerry would take a bus one way three days a week and walk back to his tent three nights. That's $3 a week.

Steve's schedule was never fixed. He would always have to call in or be reachable by phone.That would cost Jerry $2.50 a week. It also makes it tough to get a second job, because if you turn down your boss too many times over schedule changes, you won't have your job long.

Wendy's has a few upfront expenses-- they provide the shirt, but you have to buy black shoes and black pants. Let's say Jerry finds the pants at the People's Center for free but has to pay $25 for a pair of black shoes.

Now, of course you have to keep your clothes clean. Let's say Jerry washes his clothes out by hand (in the Connecticut River?) twice a week but once a week, takes his clothes to the laundromat. That's $4.

Oops, I forgot about food. At Jerry's income, he would also be eligible for $98 a month in Food Stamps. Let's give Jerry some really good luck and figure he got his food stamps just before he got his job. So he has $24.50 a week to eat on. Because he doesn't get back to his tent until after midnight, getting a 7 am free breakfast is tending not to work, but he can get lunch at the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen. Food at Wendy's is not free, and you can't purchase it with food stamps. Let's allow Jerry to spend $4 for each of the three days he works-- not the first week,of course, nor the second week, which will be over before he gets his first paycheck.

The first week, Jerry won't get a paycheck, but he still has expenses. Let's hope a friend can loan him the money. The second week, Jerry gets $171.39. He pays back his friend for the first week expenses ($25 for shoes, $4 laundry, $2.50 phone, $3 bus. = $34.50) and has his own minimum expenses for that second week-- another $9.50. That's 171.39 minus $44, leaving Jerry $127.50 at the end of his first two weeks.

Now comes his third week at work. He takes home $171.39. He has a minimum $44 in expenses, plus the $12 we let him spend on his supper break at Wendy's, leaving $115.39. Assuming he has not spent even a penny of last week's money, Jerry now has a total of $242.89.

Time to look for a room, because at this rate, saving money for first, last and security is quite an undertaking. When rooms are available, they can be had for about $125 a week.

Now, let's see if we think Jerry can make it longterm.

Based on four and a third weeks, Jerry is taking home $747 and paying $541 for housing, leaving him $206 a month. Initially he's feeling quite flush and buys a bus pass for $36 a month, leaving $170. He still has to call in once a day ($10.75 a month) and go to the laundry weekly ($17.20 a month). Let's cut Jerry's supper allowance to $3 a working day (38.70 a month).

Now Jerry has $103.35 a month to live on. For the sake of round numbers, that's $25 a week in cash and $25 a week in food stamps.

Can we let Jerry buy toilet paper, sink detergent, toothpaste and a razor? A second pair of black pants? New underwear? An alarm clock? An extra blanket?

Moving toward the luxurious, how about a houseplant, a secondhand TV, a throw rug for the floor? If not the first month, how about the second?

I'm thinking that Jerry will have to be extraordinarily disciplined to pull this off.

We've given Jerry a lot of good luck; now let's give him some bad luck.

He's out sick for two days one week
the rooming house goes up $10 a week on rent
he gets robbed one week coming home from work
his boss takes a dislike to him and cuts his hours in half
the rooming house gets cited by Code Enforcement and has to close
he goes to work one day and Wendy's is closed.

I don't write this to be discouraging to anybody, or to say there is no value in the work ethic.

I do say that no one should have to be extraordinarily lucky, extraordinarily intelligent or extraordinarily motivated just to survive in this world.

Most of us are average (or the word would have no meaning!). If our society is no longer structured to make it possible for the average person to live decently, we are in big trouble.


Bill Dusty said...

Michaelann, there are plenty of other jobs out there besides Wendy's and its equivalents. (Those jobs are primarily for high schoolers who live with their folks - ame with Dunkin' Donuts.) A look through the clssifieds on any given week will show plenty of job openings for both skilled and unskilled labor. You make it sound like the unemployment rate is at 40% or something. There are jobs to be had for those honestly seeking them out - and nearly all of them pay more than minimum wage. If you can't find a job one week, then maybe the next week or therefater will have one. But there is simply no excuse whatsoever for going months and years without employment.

By the way, just because *one* job doesn't pay enough to pay the bills, doesn't mean a person can't get a *second* job. Working folks do it often. Also, since there are couples (man/woman) in the community - as you have pointed out as being an issue with shelters - then those couple, with jobs, would have two incomes (or more) to support an apartment.

It's all about having the will to do something with yourself and better your life. And no, it doesn't take extraordinary "luck" or "intellect" to find employment, but *yes*, you do have to be motivated to seek out and find a job. Motivation is what drives people to succeed. Stop expecting people to hand things to you.

Anonymous said...

Great summary. One major point not included, how will you get a paycheck without a permanent address. An affordable permanent address.
We can all say how easy it is to find a job, to take responsibility. There are a lot more issues to homelessness and contrary to what a lot of people beleive it is not laziness.
It is mental illness, addiction, domestic violence, loss of a job, death of a family member.

Jessie said...

How about instead of automatically assuming it's NOT going to work we try to think of solutions to make it work. For instance, Jerry can get a roommate and cut his expenses in half... that's what lots of people have to do to make ends meet.

I'm sorry, Mom, but it really does seem like you're automatically looking at the bad stuff that might possibly happen.

Sometimes it's really helpful to look for solutions first before automatically thinking that it will never work.

As far as your saying this:

I do say that no one should have to be extraordinarily lucky, extraordinarily intelligent or extraordinarily motivated just to survive in this world.

I don't think it takes extraordinary motivation to go to work at Wendy's. It does take SOME motivation, though.

Anonymous said...

Motivation, thats the key and 99% of the people working there had none. Where are all you people who complained about the service there? What a shame that people are always looking for someone else to blame for their lack of. Yes there are lots people who have disabilties. We know this. These people are not the issue. I raised all my kids without help from anyone. I'm not college smart. You can make a good life. You just have to have some pride in yourself and your job. People are always looking for ways or reasons not to work.

Anonymous said...

99.9 percent of the people working at wendys had no motivation
they just wanted a paycheck for doing nothing
no wonder the company had problems