Meghann CotterMeghann Cotter is executive director of  Micah Ecumenical Ministries.
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Get a job!

There’s one in every crowd.

No matter how much passion I pour into the story; No matter what lengths we’ve gone to help a person; and regardless of how resoundingly successful the story is, there’s always one.

Sometimes they don’t say anything at all, perhaps out of fear of being the minority or desire not to be confrontational. But most of the time they wave their banner high and boisterously exclaim, “why don’t those people just get jobs?”

I have no problem answering that question.  And usually, a few facts from my back pocket allow us to move on in the greater conversation about homelessness. But at its core,  the issue is worth discussing from few different angles.

When people ask that question, they don’t typically account for all the reasons they themselves can get and keep a job, simply because they live indoors. Hygiene, a good night sleep, and a regular diet are a must for most any employee to fulfill a boss’s expectations.

Someone who lives outside, is unfortunately challenged in their pursuit of such basic needs. Showers are competitive and limited to certain hours of the day. They carry everything they own on their back, and they depend on the most accessible non-profit for whatever clothing they own. Then again, no quality wardrobe or regular bathing schedule matters much at all when your home is the woods and there’s a good chance that bad weather, a police intrusion or an unruly neighbor could disturb your night, and ultimately your work schedule the next day.

Pile on lower education levels, a mental health issue or disability, lack of transportation, possibly a criminal background and simple stereotype, and circumstances are close to impossible for any street person to find their own way into sustainable and gainful employment. When that resume stands up against a bachelor’s degree, a clean record, a driver’s license and a solid pattern of experience held by one of the other 8 to 10 percent (or close to 100 million people) of America’s unemployed, guess whose application lands in file 13!

Despite the fact that 40 to 50% of homeless in our nation have some kind of disability, one-third of the country’s street and shelter population actually does work.  Incomes, however, are often not enough to afford both a place to live and the other things they need to survive.  Each winter, when we run the cold weather shelter, at least five to six clients get up at 4am each morning to stand in line at a day labor business, hoping to go out on a job that day. Even so, many of them owe so much in fines, alimony, child support and to other creditors, that as much as 65% of their wages are garnished each payday. When you are talking $50 a day or $7.25 an hour, even a 40 hour week doesn’t offer much leverage off the street. When caught in the predicament of working and being homeless or not working and being homeless, even the most capable employees give up.

Yes, there are lots of things many of our homeless could have done differently in their lives to make themselves more competitive employees. We don’t know why they made some of the choices they did. But by the time they become homeless, no one can’t change that. We can work on attitudes, build skills, make job connections and hope that sustainable, gainful employment will come their way. Nothing, however, can change a fine that’s owed, a degree that wasn’t earned, the time spent in jail, or a condition that ails them.

People who ask, “why don’t those people just get jobs?” typically dismiss that argument. It’s not their responsibility. They didn’t make the mistake. They don’t have the disability. And people should be held accountable for themselves. But if we understand we can’t change the past, and we accept there are homeless who can and want to work, how can we possibly proclaim “Get a job,” and take no community ownership of helping that to happen?

I recall the story of one famous homeless man. Centuries ago, he wandered the countryside living only off of what others provided him. He had a trade–carpentry–like most in his time. But there wasn’t much handiwork that came out of that skill.  So, in some circles people probably thought him a bum, a free-loader and that he definately needed a job. All his behavior was accomplishing anyway was stirring up trouble for the government, the church, the tax collectors and other hard-working people in the community.

But his message was resoundingly comparable to those hurling accusations at him. “Come, follow me,” he says in Matthew 4:19 “and I will show you how to fish for people.” In saying such, he turns to those who shouted “Get a job!” and asks that they do the same. “Give up your life” and “follow me” he calls to us throughout the New Testament. And time, after time he gives the world a job that has nothing to do with money or power or ladder-climbing fulfillment. It has everything to do with reaching out to those who don’t have a job and helping them to find their way.

Micah Ministries is always interested in talking to community businesses that would be interested in hiring its clients. We offer a supportive employment program called Step Forward that connects eligible applicants to sustainable work. Our partner employers realize many benefits, including lower turnover, less responsibility in applicant screening and endless pool of skilled workers. To learn more contact Melissa King at 540-373-4567.



  • Justine Junky

    Up to 75% of homeless have mental states that do not allow them to work and as such I think it is not always correct to tell everyone to go to work. Of course there might be some form of primitive work they can do but that is very selective. 

  • Melanie Hobbs

    What a beautifully written article. Thank you.

  • Donald Bley

    Justine – is it ONLY 75% of homeless who have some significant mental handicap to full time employment?  There always have been, and always will be, people in any society who just plain have to be taken care of, or abandoned.  I’m not here advocating for either way, but our society as a whole DOES need to decide which one it will be.

  • Anonymous

    Governments and private institutions closed the doors of “mental institutions “countrywide” due to anumber of reasons..mostly because the inmates were cruelly treated. (Nurse Ratchett?”)So they were abandoned into “society” to find their own way. Stupid selfish, irrational, short sighted” are a few terms that come to mind. It is the mindset of the government do gooders who never admitted failure and instead cloaked their decision as “good for the handicapped to be in the community. ”Community is the most abused word in the American language. The community doesn’t give a crap for the most part until they meet the problem face to face. And maybe when a homeless guy looking for a handout and armed with a knife goes up against a car window and a loaded .45 automatic.
    If a person is unable due to limited mental capacity to provide for himself we ALL need to provide for him. Living under a bridge and panhandling at intersections is not providing for anyone. And now it is illegal for them to hustle change at red lights etc.  Maybe the lawmakers can get them jobs at municipal least they are honest for the most part. 

  • Anonymous

    For all the reasons this lady lists,  how can she ask business owners to hire these homeless when they have mental illness and criminal records.   The world is not the same as 2000 years ago.  The hiring business might be held liable for any crime committed by these people at work because they knowingly put the other employees at risk.   Just as a school or daycare would be for exposing their students to a known criminals.   

  • John Chapman

    well said

  • Wm Stanford

    OK, first thing first: mental facilities across Virginia or the nation have not been closed down,,,especially for ill treatment. You watch way too much TV to believe that.

    Those panhandlers that live under that bridge have fallen on bad luck but would it surprise you that most panhandle to purchase (in this order) alcohol, drugs and food).  They are given the opportunity to stabilize in the homeless shelter here but refuse as their property is searched each day and illegal substances are not permitted.

    For every 20 citizens in “tent city” one is a valid case of hard luck – I wish to God, we could save them all. But, it starts with them seeking and wanting the help.

    I’ve worked in the social services field for twenty three years and know every single tent city occupant – I can assure you: a handout is what is preferred rather than an opportunity.

    Sad, but true. But the bottom line: the facilities remain, they are open and those with a mental defect, God bless them are there for a reason…..a chemical  iimbalance in the brain that can not be corrected. It is sad, but it is true. As for your attack on the staffing of those facilites, you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about. Unless you base that on television.

    It’s time to watch the news and not “The One Who Flew Over The Cookoos’s Nest/”

  • Anonymous

    You seem to be very knowledgeable on the subject and obviously I am not since I have no first hand knowledge of the homeless/mentally ill folks. I know what I read, see and hear. Folks like you need to get the message out to inform the public and improve the lives of these folks.  I know that costs money..I contribute $ to The Salvation Army since they are the top organization in the field in my opinion(more of the contributions they receive are used to help people unlike United Way who have a high expense ratio.)
    Thank you for your helpful response.