Column: Now Hiring

Column: Now Hiring

The importance of employment for Alexandria’s homeless population.

Imagine having to choose between paying rent and feeding your family tonight. Imagine cancelling a doctor’s appointment because the expense would cost you your housing. Imagine having to make these difficult decisions after a long day at work. This is reality that hundreds of low-income individuals and families face every day in the City of Alexandria.

The City of Alexandria’s annual point-in-time (PIT) count showed 159 single adults and 108 members of families, including 71 children, experiencing homelessness as of January 2015. Only 36 percent of Alexandria’s single adults in the count were employed, and the majority of those receiving an income reported it as being between $501‐$1,000 each month. In households with children, 78 percent of adults were employed and 97 percent reported receiving an income; however, half of these households received a monthly income between $251 and $1,000. For both populations, this income is significantly less than the monthly income needed to afford a basic two-bedroom apartment in the City of Alexandria — $4,860.27 ($28.04 per hour) according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Given the lack of affordable housing and high cost of living in the Alexandria area, stable employment is vital to attaining and maintaining housing and independence. Although many homeless individuals are employed, most are significantly under-employed, earn wages well below 50 percent of the area median income, and lack many of the skills needed to secure better jobs. Often, individuals who are experiencing homelessness find themselves in crisis due to job loss, salary reduction, limited formal education, unstable family arrangements, mental or physical health issues, a history of substance abuse, or a criminal background. To get back on track, they need to identify, address and eradicate these barriers, which is a daunting task.

To make this more concrete, consider the story of Martha and Alex, former Carpenter’s Shelter residents who experienced a housing crisis tied to employment limitations. Although Martha and Alex both had part-time jobs, their hours were not consistent and their benefits non-existent. With no real job stability or certainty when they would be called in to work, they lost their apartment and were homeless. After losing their housing, they experienced yet another challenge related to their homelessness — having to send their eight-year-old son to live with family in Pennsylvania. Martha and Alex were just like any other parent who wanted to ensure the safety, health and happiness of their child, which would not be found on the streets.

After spending several nights in Carpenter’s hypothermia shelter, Martha and Alex were connected with emergency shelter services. Once they had a roof over their heads and food on their plates, they were reunited with their son and were able to focus on attaining better, more sustainable employment. While at Carpenter’s Shelter, Martha enrolled in an 8-week training course which provided her with a job making $11 an hour. Although this wage was low, it was a full-time job with benefits and allowed her to pick up additional shifts for overtime. Alex also obtained a full-time job working in a car dealership, making $10.50 an hour. Their combined earnings and savings while in the shelter allowed them to attain and maintain an apartment in the city and support their growing family of four.

Martha and Alex demonstrate that employment is one of the greatest barriers, and yet the greatest key, to ending a housing crisis. With no home, no savings, no medical benefits, no transportation, and unexpected obstacles — such as the separation of a family — employment can be difficult to achieve. Further, given the current landscape and lack of affordable housing in this area, part-time employment is not always enough. The availability of living-wage jobs remains a key obstacle for the homeless population in the City of Alexandria.

In the spirit of Labor Day and its honoring of the social and economic achievements of workers, remember the key role that suitable employment plays in safe, stable homes. Martha and Alex’s story ended with success, but there are still hundreds of other homeless individuals and families in the City of Alexandria who are struggling to achieve adequate employment and find new homes.

Carpenter’s Shelter is a member of The Partnership to Prevent and End Homeless in the City of Alexandria. The Partnership is Alexandria’s Continuum of Care, a collaborative group representing public and private stakeholders providing services or resources to persons experiencing or who are at risk of homelessness in the City of Alexandria.