We’ve talked a lot in the past about misconceptions about the homeless. For instance, how hard could it be for them to vote, how are they really affected by differing housing policies, and that homelessness can be exacerbated by the problem of gentrification.
But beyond all that, the question that we all have had at one point. Maybe we’ve vocalised it, or maybe we’ve thought silently about why it’s so hard for someone to make a living instead of trying to survive on the streets. We started this conversation before, and talked a little bit about how having a criminal record can be a big barrier in the job search for the homeless. But why can’t homeless people just get a job?
We’ve touched on some of the reasons, but we wanted to expand a little bit on a big one. Having a criminal record precludes you from many types of employment. While this can be for a very good reason (i.e. a violent offender should not be in, say, a client facing role or secure work in a daycare center!) the issue is much more nuanced than that. Many, many people with criminal records are not dangerous people, and would not even be out committing crimes were it possible for them to secure a job after one mistake.
According to Fast Company, 70 million Americans have a criminal record. This doesn’t mean that they served time or were convicted, but they have the record. President Obama initiated a program to give companies an incentive for hiring ex-convicts, but the barriers are still there. As Richard Bronson states, to expect someone who has been behind bars their entire adult life to know how to code, a growing necessity, or to know how to do many things in business, is unrealistic. As society slowly changes towards de-stigmatizing criminal records, are we also changing to allow resources for educating those who need these jobs? Are we working to keep people out of the criminal justice system in the first place?
According to the New York Times, regardless of the systems put into place to try and help get people into the workplace, it’s still very hard to get a job with a criminal record. And even harder for black men than white men.
Here’s the question: if you make a mistake, serve your time, and get out of prison and follow the letter of the law regarding parole, why shouldn’t you be allowed gainful employment?
There are a few issues at play here. First of all, the US criminalizes many non-violent crimes and we find our criminal justice system overloaded with people serving time (and therefore using billions of our tax dollars) for things like stealing an item of clothing or selling a few dollars’ worth of marijuana. The question of the severity of the United States Criminal Justice System is deep, and deserves much time and attention. It’s unusual in a normal situation to suffer ongoing punishment for an offense. But that’s what happens when someone gets out of prison; their record follows them to any job interview they can find.
Secondly, homelessness in itself is criminalized in many cases. Does that mean it’s literally illegal to be homeless? No, but the effects of the situation are penalized. Homeless people frequently gather in groups to provide a somewhat safer, community aspect to their situation. But cities will come in and disperse these gatherings, making it impossible for the homeless to find a community or some sense of safety from the elements. Cities will pass ordinances that make it much harder for charitable organizations to distribute food to the homeless. They can make it illegal to loiter, or sleep in your car or in public, which are frequently the only places homeless people can be. Being simply unable to exist in a certain space is dehumanizing.
So we can see that it’s really not that hard to rack up a criminal record. It’s easy for people to assume that someone with a criminal record must have it for a reason, until you explore their stories and find out that the “easy” thing is to grow up in a low income area and attain a criminal record.
For the homeless, they already face many barriers to entry for employment. Adding a criminal record on top of their troubles only serves to keep them down, rather than helping to pull them up.
Not only is incarceration a problem for your future employment aspects. It’s a problem for your community, as well. In 2015, The Atlantic ran a piece about the effects of widespread incarceration on a community, based on studies of the phenomenon.
“These patterns reveal new depths of the incarceration-poverty problem, with health effects that may carry over into new generations alongside the related economic burdens. The cumulative emotional stress resulting from high incarceration rates in a community may generate feedback loops of its own—perhaps by inducing substance abuse and other behaviors associated with depression and anxiety, and in turn predicting further incarceration.”
We encourage you to check out this full original piece and read about the statistical likelihood of those who are born into low-income areas finding themselves in trouble with the law. There’s a reasonable assumption for many of us, as we walk down the street, that we’re not getting into any trouble. We’re likely to be left alone by the police. That assumption does not exist for many people of color and for people in low-income or poverty-ridden areas.
We’ve talked about the school-to-prison pipeline before, and how the school system is frequently set up to funnel children of color into the criminal justice system. How can a person expect to come out of the school system and into prison, then leave prison with a record and in many cases no degree, certainly no higher degree such as an Associate’s or Bachelor’s, and make a living wage? Even fast food companies aren’t paying livable wages. “Why can’t they go get a job at McDonald’s?” Because these companies do background checks and don’t pay a livable wage.
And when you think critically about what it must be like, being born into a community and a family where multiple members have been at one time or are currently serving time, what does that say about your life trajectory? Do you think that you would feel like you could do anything in life? That the options were limitless? Or would you feel from the start that a path was set before you, and you have no choice but to traverse it.
So we’re locking people up for any and everything, spending billions of American tax dollar to do so. Dollars that could go towards healthcare, our deeply-in-need-of-attention education system, national security, anything else but locking up our own citizens. Imagine if instead of the country paying for them to live, they could be making their own living and paying their own taxes back into the country.
This affects everyone, even if you don’t encounter homeless people on a daily basis. Even if you don’t directly know someone with a criminal record. Society is cyclical. Someone who cannot support themselves legally will figure out a way to do it illegally. Survival is built into our DNA; the law is not. Would you rather be walking the streets of a city that provides resources to aid those who need help, or would you prefer to be in a city that continues to push against those who are already at the bottom until they have no other option than to turn to a life of crime to put food on the table for their family?
How Incarceration Affects a Community, The Atlantic
Criminalization, National Coalition for the Homeless
A Living Death: Life Without Parole for Non-Violent Offenses, ACLU
It’s Hard for People with Criminal Records to Get a Job, Fast Company
Out of Trouble, but Criminal Records Keep Men out of Work, NY Times