On my way to work, I drive by a homeless camp nestled in a small wooded area near the intersection of I-70 and West Broad Street here in Columbus, Ohio. In the winter, with barren trees, the colored tents and tarps are easily seen. During the other three seasons, the place is invisible.
Often I see the camp dwellers at their jobs, standing at the interstate exit ramps with their cardboard signs, the black printed words "NEED HELP" and "GOD BLESS" a common marketing and advertising theme. Occasionally I see someone start their shift by selecting one of the signs stashed by the intersection. Once in a while I watch a shift change as one man passes a sign to another and then meanders off, either back to the camp or to the nearby shopping center to ask passersby for "help with bus fare to get to a job interview" as he points to his newspaper's want ads section.
How interesting, how strange, to think of these homeless men as having jobs and going to work.
Actually, should I become homeless, these men would probably be my job placement counselors. They would help me identify the issues and barriers that would prevent me from being vocationally successful, such as understanding that I'll get in big trouble if I intrude on a senior (or stronger) worker's territory; help me find the best places to earn the most money, discover which churches and social service agencies to go to for food and shelter; and perhaps most importantly, help me avoid the police who periodically stop at work sites to admonish workers about their interpersonal skills.
Sharing information, advising, helping identify possible solutions to issues and barriers -- these are the same kinds of things I need to do when the homeless approach me for career guidance or job-search assistance.
Some choose homelessness because that lifestyle affords them freedom and flexibility not found elsewhere in society. Some are homeless due to mental illness, anti-social tendencies, addictions or criminal behavior. Others are in situational homelessness, having unexpectedly been run over by the truck of life: they got sick and then lost their jobs; they were displaced by natural or man-made disasters; they were abandoned by or had to leave their families -- and they all want very much to re-enter their previous lifestyle.
Reactions to the homeless vary. Many people simply want them to disappear. Others mistakenly believe that homeless people can't or won't work. Some avoid the homeless for fear it will rub off on them. Others want to help these individuals, but just don't know where to start.
Even the most well-intentioned of us can make the mistake of assuming all homeless people want the same thing -- permanent housing, for instance. But the truth is that just because a person wants to find a better job doesn't mean they want to move, say, from the homeless class into the working or middle class. Certainly knowing a person's life, education, spiritual and other goals allows us to offer a higher level of vocational guidance. But we really do need to ask about those things, and not assume them.
An area that I struggle with is the tension between trying to lead clients (homeless or not) in the direction I believe they should go versus providing them the information and resources that they want. I often see tremendous potential in a person, and want him or her to develop that potential, when what they want is "anything" that comes along. Their aspiration is the goal and my job is to provide the same core service no matter what their circumstances. We will all be more effective if, when working with the homeless, or anyone else, we apply these basic principles:
A homeless man came into a career center where I was volunteering. He had tree trimming skills and experience. I asked if I could help him and he said no thanks. He opened up the yellow pages, started calling tree service companies, and in 20 minutes had a job interview lined up for the next day. Quite often, if we give homeless folks the tools and get out of their way, they can do quite well.
Chris Hogg is an employment specialist in a neighborhood social service agency in Columbus, Ohio. His career exploration and job search clients range from the homeless to the upper middle class and from high school dropouts to Ph.D.s. He can be reached at email@example.com