Hiring the Homeless Doesn’t Work if You Don’t Understand Homelessness

Photo credit: ChrisDag, CC BY 2.0.

Last fall, Amazon worked with the YWCA to match Seattle’s homeless with Amazon warehouse jobs. Sounds ideal, right? Give homeless people work, and you can help propel them out of poverty while simultaneously earning a few tax breaks.

Except, as Joshua McNichols reported for KUOW, hiring the homeless doesn’t work if you don’t understand homelessness.

First, the jobs were night shift and swing shift positions. That’s tough if you sleep at a homeless shelter, because most homeless shelters close during the day and have strict curfews that don’t allow people to arrive in the night. Night shift jobs force homeless people to catch their sleep in places like public libraries.

Amazon warehouse jobs often require physical stamina and endurance—something that’s hard to maintain on a sleep deficit.

But even if the homeless workers were able to make it work, to sleep in libraries and wash up in public restrooms, to find places to store their belongings while they’re at the warehouse, to show up on time and get the job done and take home their paycheck and rent an apartment and do all the “right things,” they still had to overcome one more obstacle: figuring out what to do after Amazon let them go.

The jobs were seasonal. [YWCA Director of Economic Empowerment Mike Schwartz] said he was told the jobs could become permanent if the workers performed well. In retrospect, Schwartz said he should have known, based on Amazon’s history of hiring seasonal workers at that time of year. But the miscommunication came at a price.
“If you’re homeless and you get a seasonal job, it may not help you very much in the long term. It may even hurt you,” Schwartz said. “You may have moved into permanent housing thinking that you’ll be able to pay your rent, and then all of a sudden the floor drops out from under you.”

Okay, you’ll argue. Maybe a person with a seasonal job shouldn’t be renting an apartment in the first place. Well, maybe you think you’ll get one of those permanent positions, and maybe you want to improve your chances by finding a stable place to sleep and shower. Maybe you plan to continue your job search while you work for Amazon, knowing that it’s a lot easier to find a job if you already have a job and a permanent address. Maybe your case manager finds an opportunity for you—and your family—to move into an affordable apartment, and you take it. Or maybe your shelter no longer allows you to stay there, since you’re earning above a certain income level.

So you get an apartment. But if you don’t get a permanent job, then you run out of money and you fall behind on the rent and you get evicted—which, as McNichols notes, makes it that much harder to find an apartment the next time.

What do Seattle’s homeless think about all of this? McNichols reached out and got this response:

Jackie Williams said the job fair did more harm than good. She said she and the other women in her shelter felt burned.
“You made them go deeper into depression,” Williams said. “You really hurt someone when you do that. You set them back.”

Williams is no longer homeless, by the way—because she found a permanent position at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center.

Look, we know that few jobs are truly permanent. A person in a so-called permanent job could get let go just as easily as a seasonal worker. But stability is important, as are benefits—including unemployment, which seasonal workers only occasionally receive.

So that’s a good starting point for businesses that want to help homeless workers. Also? Learn as much as you can about where your workers live, when shelters open and close, and the special obstacles facing people who are homeless, such as a safe place to put their belongings while they work.

If a business wants to provide opportunities to people who are homeless, make them true opportunities. Otherwise, you’ll just be offering jobs, and some of the people who take those jobs may be homeless, and others may become homeless again once the job is over.