BEDS Special Bulletin: Employment

Employment represents one of the many ways we help people experiencing homelessness and imminent risk of homelessness stabilize their lives. Today, we want to take a closer look at the issue of employment for people experiencing homelessness and how we respond.

Do people experiencing homelessness work?
A common stereotype holds that people experiencing homelessness would rather live on the streets than work. It’s wrong for so many reasons. The sobering truth is that employment does not guarantee housing. Up to 60 percent of people experiencing homelessness already work. Most hold part time and seasonal jobs; however, as this NPR article shows, there are exceptions like its example of Nereida, who works fulltime in an optometrist’s office. Her story reflects the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s Out of Reach study, which found that even a full-time, minimum wage worker cannot afford housing in any zip code.

What gets in the way of them finding and keeping sustainable jobs?
The too-lazy-to-work stereotype assumes getting a steady job only takes mustering the will, striding into a business, and applying (see this delightful Onion article mocking the idea). It’s a common form of victim blaming that lets policymakers, pundits, and message board posters ignore the structural issues behind social problems in favor of some rarified idea of personal responsibility. And it ignores people experiencing homelessness’ obstacles to finding and keeping jobs:

  • Physical and Behavioral Health Conditions: Many people experiencing homelessness have chronic illnesses, behavioral health conditions, and/or disabilities that may limit or prevent them from performing work-related duties, even if they are not officially designated as “disabled.” Last year, for example, 60 percent of BEDS clients reported at least one serious health or behavioral health condition.
  • Lack of Job Search and Application Ability: People experiencing homelessness often do not have fixed addresses, reliable phone numbers, and identifying documentation (due to loss, theft, or immigration status), all prerequisites for job applications and hiring. And, they may have limited, if any, Internet access, which leaves them unable to systematically search for jobs and complete online applications.
  • Lack of Transportation and Childcare: People experiencing homelessness can lack reliable transportation to and from jobs, an especially steep barrier in Southwest Suburban Cook County which does not have extensive public transportation. Also, without childcare, parents experiencing homelessness or imminent risk of homelessness cannot go to work, a barrier that reached crisis proportions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Employer Stereotypes: Even if people experiencing homelessness can make it in the door, employers hesitate to hire and retain people experiencing homelessness based on a perception that they somehow will be “unprofessional” due to poor hygiene, dirty clothes, bad attitudes, unreliability, workplace theft...the list goes on. People experiencing homelessness are not a protected class, like gender, race/ethnicity, or religion, and they have no legal recourse to claim workplace discrimination.

How does BEDS help?
BEDS recognizes that employment income plays a key role in regaining and sustaining housing and provides important socioemotional benefits. Its employment program helps clients find, apply for, and remain in jobs. Program Employment Specialist Bill Burke describes how, “We’re not putting people into a dream job right away, but we’re helping them begin job searches and complete applications and build the employment history that will get them out of shelter.” The program:

  • Helps clients develop professional resumes.
  • Creates clients’ online job seeker accounts on
  • Provides job search assistance.
  • Coaches clients on interviewing and workplace skills.
  • Connects clients with area employment agencies and employers.

Does this work?
Yes. Dan and his two children, aged 10 and 11, lived with his mother until she passed away. About the same time he lost his job in the packaging industry and could not find another place to live. A counselor at the children’s school referred them to BEDS, which was able to place them in a motel room for shelter Dan began working with Bill Burke and our employment program. He completed a resume and online job search profile, connected with Express Staffing in Brookfield, and is now a forklift driver at Fresh Logistics in La Grange. Bill Burke describes how, “You can see the transformation the job has made. He’s able to get things for those wonderful kids, and he’s well on his way into a new home.”

How can I help?
You can help people experiencing homelessness find and keep jobs by donating here.