It’s the most misguided, and yet repeated, statement I hear: “Those guys need to get a job!”
There are A LOT of people in our shelters (or a paycheck away from living in a shelter) who already have a job, but it’s not enough to live on.
For most people who are chronically homeless, though, “Get a job!” doesn’t work because they cannot sustain jobs that will support them. There are a lot of reasons for this and they’re complex for each person.
It’s like a strand of Christmas lights that have been packed away. You pull them out of the box, and find a big, tangled ball. You try to pull a strand, but sometimes that makes the knot worse.
Many of our clients’ lives are like a tangled mess of lights. Some of the strands are bad things that happened – the abuse they survived as children, a mental illness, a disabling accident or disease, the tragic loss of someone they loved. Other strands are bad choices they made along the way – that first hit of a drug, a crime, a broken relationship, an eviction from an apartment, dropping out of school.
Tug on one, and you pull another.
Take Arnold, a young guy who spent a lot of time in and out of our shelter (when he wasn’t in and out of prison). He has a mental illness, a history of emotional trauma, and an addiction he uses to self-medicate. His knot – even though he’s only 22 – seemed impossible to unravel. At one point he was banned from the shelter for physical fighting.
Several months ago we allowed him to come back because he was working with the Sangamon County courts. He was on his medicine, working a few hours a week at a fast food restaurant, sober, and seeing his counselors.
Then one evening he didn’t show up to the shelter – it had been a rough day, and he had gone out to get high.
The next day he came back, and he was scared and embarrassed. One mistake could wreck several weeks of progress, and even send him behind bars. He asked me what was going to happen. I told him he would have to face some consequences, but that we weren’t going to give up on him and neither was the judge.
He raised his head and looked me in the eye. “You still love me, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. “We all love you no matter what.”
He ended up getting back on track, and today he is housed in an apartment while receiving support services. He returns occasionally to visit and always asks me if we still love him. Of course we do.
Our job – as an agency and a community – is to try to help people untangle their knot and get their lives back.
“Get a job” may certainly be in their potential. But for a lot of reasons it may not be, or it might not be possible today. They might need to take a first step towards sobriety. Or attend a trauma-support group. Or find a healthcare provider they trust. Or secure safe, stable housing.
For many people, though, loosening that knot starts first with knowing they are loved.