“Why don’t homeless people just get a job?”

Some time ago, I was driving in a car with a few friends to a restaurant for dinner. We stopped at a light, and saw a young man panhandling for money. One of my friends pointed at him and said, “Look at this guy. Why doesn’t he just get a job, instead of asking for money? He looks fine to work.”

I have heard this kind of comment before, in various forms. Comments that “homeless people are just lazy” or “homeless people just need to work hard.” As I said in a previous status, someone working a full-time job may still not be able to afford housing, because the rent is so high. But putting that aside, I wonder if my friend can see the whole picture.

  1. Does my friend have X-ray vision? Can he see whether the man has any physical disabilities? A person who doesn’t have any visually obvious disabilities may well be physically impaired and unable to work. Does my friend have eyes to see whether the man has osteoarthritis, chronic heart failure, or epilepsy?
  2. Does my friend have psychic powers? Can he see whether the man has any mental disabilities? Mental disabilities can be severely debilitating, and dramatically impair someone’s ability to work. Does my friend have eyes to see schizophrenia, clinical depression, or an intellectual disorder?
  3. Does my friend have superpower criminal justice eyes? Can he see whether the man has a criminal history that prevents him from getting a job? A felony record can follow a person for life, severely limiting opportunities. Does my friend have eyes to see whether the man has a felony record from a nonviolent drug crime committed 20 years ago that’s still shutting doors in his face, even if he hasn’t done anything wrong since then?

It’s easy to make assumptions about why people are experiencing homelessness. But there’s so many factors that are hidden from our view. The only way to understand people who are experiencing homelessness is to talk to them. Listen to them. Share space with them.

Why are people who work full time still homeless?

Berkeley has a large and visible population of people experiencing homelessness. Walk around Berkeley, and you’ll see tents and sleeping bags everywhere. Moreover, the number of people on the streets has been increasing. I left Berkeley for law school in 2013, and by the time I came back in 2016, I definitely noticed the change.

Sometimes people ask, “Why are these people living on the streets? Why aren’t they working?”

But let’s look at some basic math:

The average rent for a one bedroom apartment in Berkeley is $2100 a month.

Minimum wage in Berkeley is $13.25 an hour.

For a 40 hour workweek, that’s $2120 a month, before taxes. After taxes is closer to $1800. That $1800 must cover rent, utilities, food, clothing, and other expenses. But since the average rent for a one bedroom is $2100 a month, it’s really hard to find housing.

“But what about housing assistance?”

Berkeley does have Section 8 housing assistance. The wait list is currently closed. Last time it was open was in 2010. 39,000 people applied, and 1,500 people were accepted to the wait list. The wait list probably will stay closed for years.

People who are living on the street may well be working. But because of the sky high rent, they still may not be able to afford a place to live. The math just doesn’t work.