The truth is that many do – in fact, a 2021 study from the University of Chicago estimates that 53% of people living in homeless shelters and 40% of unsheltered people were employed, either full or part-time, in the year that people were observed homeless between 2011 – 2018.
Despite how many people experiencing homelessness work, a job doesn’t solve everything. Life-sustaining wages are a key determinant of housing security; however, most people experiencing homelessness are not earning enough to afford rent.
Low Wages and Underemployment: What the Numbers Show
The National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach Report calculates that a household would need to earn an average salary of $46,967, or $23 per hour, to afford a 2-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent. This is much higher than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour – or in cities with a higher minimum wage. Even if people are working full time, they would not be able to afford housing earning minimum wage.
Findings from the University of Chicago study highlight this discrepancy: the mean annual earnings for people experiencing sheltered homelessness aged 18 – 64 was $8,169 in 2015 (pre-tax income, which excludes benefits). Mean earnings for unsheltered people were even lower at $6,934 in 2015 and have generally stayed lower than their sheltered counterpart during the ten-year frame of study. Accounting for inflation, even the top earners in both groups could not afford a 1 or 2-bedroom apartment in 2022, which are $44,200 and $53,706 respectively.
Most people in the above study work part-time, just shy of the standard 40 hour work week. Opportunities to enter a higher-paying full-time job may help them become more financially stable and independent – but coming from homelessness, it isn’t always that easy, even with the help of providers.
The Realities of Working While Homeless
A service provider in southern California pointed to several challenges that can prevent people from attaining sufficient employment:
- Discrimination: People experiencing homelessness may experience systemic racism as well as discrimination if employers require a permanent address.
- Logistics: People experiencing homelessness may need to access public facilities to properly prepare for interviews, and their living situation may not be feasible to do so. Access to transportation can also impact when and how they can get to work.
- Accommodations: Since the homeless population experiences higher rates of physical and cognitive disabilities, many may need work accommodation to perform their jobs successfully.
- Hiring Challenges: There may be educational requirements and unspoken social expectations that can impede hiring a person who is currently or has formerly experienced homelessness. People may need support and time to build skills in order to qualify for jobs they are interested in.
There are also less obvious challenges: certain benefits are at risk once someone starts earning a higher income, making the transition from homelessness potentially stressful. For example, the income limit for social security for a person under retirement age is $19,560. This is much lower than the salary required to afford the average cost of a 1-bedroom apartment, not accounting for the cost of food or other necessities. Losing these benefits when people are still trying to securely transition into housing only makes the process that much harder.
Finding Employment Doesn’t Equate to Finding Housing
Even if someone experiencing homelessness has a job and is able to afford rent, that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to easily find a place to live. Landlord discrimination against past or current homelessness, eviction history, involvement of criminal justice, and income source can all prevent people from achieving housing security. Barriers like these can keep people homeless – even if they’re working, and even if there are affordable units available in their area.
While many people experiencing homelessness are employed, their income alone often isn’t enough to maintain stable housing. This can result in financial insecurity, which is both a main cause and a prolonging factor of homelessness. Every person’s situation is different and demands unique solutions; providing pathways to sustainable employment can be an effective way to help people achieve housing security. It’s an important goal for individuals to attain a job that interests them and also pays life-sustaining wages. But, even more broadly, housing needs to be financially accessible in the first place, as the Out of Reach report shows. A paycheck should be able to support one’s housing needs; by expanding affordable housing overall, people who work may finally be able to attain housing security.