Editorials, Opinion

It’s not as simple as ‘get a job’

When frigid temperatures struck Morgantown over the Christmas weekend, organizations and volunteer groups struggled to find accommodations for 110 people who are homeless. Sixty people hunkered down in the emergency warming shelter; another 20 had been placed in hotel rooms; and 30 waited out the cold in Bartlett’s year-round shelter. Becky Rodd, coordinator of the emergency warming shelter, said the holiday deep freeze revealed a “crisis of homelessness in Morgantown.”

It’s no secret that homelessness is a problem here in the city, but many of us may not have realized just how many people in our community live without permanent shelter.

The only real “cure” for homelessness is housing, so the obvious solution is to provide permanent housing for those who don’t have it. This is also often the most objectionable solution.

Most of us have been taught from a young age that we must earn what we get; that we cannot get something for nothing; that we must work to build a stable and prosperous life. And for the majority of us, this is how life works. We get jobs to earn money to buy necessities and occasionally luxuries. Which is why most of us believe the solution to homelessness is not to give someone a house, but to give them a job. With hard work, they can earn everything else.

Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Take a moment to think about what it took you to get a job. What did you need for the interview? What did you wear? Once you got the job, what did you need then?

Now, imagine going through that process again, this time as someone who is homeless: little or no access to internet for job searching or filling out applications; possibly no phone for interview calls or callbacks; no car, relying instead on public transportation that may be inconsistent with work schedules; no safe place to store all your belongings while you interview or work; being beholden to a shelter’s opening and closing hours; possibly no ID for HR to keep on file, let alone an address to send checks or other paperwork; no access to pet or child care; no place to shower every day; no nice clothes for work or  a place to wash a uniform; no extra money for lunch or access to a kitchen so you can bring your own.

There are a dozen barriers for someone who is homeless to find work — and that’s without factoring in untreated mental health problems or current or past substance abuse or previous incarceration. It becomes a vicious cycle where you can’t get housing because you can’t get work, but you can’t get work because of the challenges that come with being unhoused.

Homelessness is a complex issue, and we know there are dozens of individuals and organizations who are working to find a solution that addresses the myriad problems homeless people face and appeases the overall community. We also know their work would be much easier if the community better understood the unique challenges of homelessness — and remembered that so many of us are one missed paycheck, one catastrophic injury or one drastic life change away from being unsheltered ourselves.