Before Amazon was investing in housing for homeless folks in South Lake Union, the tech giant had another idea to help. In December of 2015, the company approached the YWCA, looking to hire some people who were experiencing homelessness. It seemed like an exciting proposal. After all, a job is the ticket out, right?
Often when we talk about ending homelessness, we cite the high number of unsheltered and tentatively sheltered people who do work. In a recent city of Seattle survey, 20 percent of homeless folks said they were unable to work, while 41 percent reported being employed in some manner. Often, we talk about jobs as a path out of poverty.
But what happens when — like at Amazon, and so many other places that do hire people with unstable shelter — those jobs aren’t the kind that happen between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.? What happens when your work and your shelter are at odds with each other?
In the case of Amazon’s seasonal holiday hiring, the jobs were located at a fulfillment center located miles outside of town. Access by bus was difficult and many of the people who got those jobs didn’t have transportation to get there. Additionally, there was the issue of hours: many of the positions were overnight, or third-shift, which meant that the workers had nowhere to stay.
Seattle has no 24-hour, low-barrier shelter. Seattle has nowhere to sleep safely during the daytime. Seattle has no option for people working night shifts at call centers, in hospitals, in service jobs, in tech companies, at the docks or anywhere else where the schedule is on a 24- rather than a a 12-hour clock
Jobs are essential, but housing is, too. In that same city of Seattle survey, rental assistance — not help getting a job — was far and away the resource cited as the most necessary to help folks get inside.
More than 80 percent of Seattle’s homeless population have a college diploma, GED or higher. They’re skilled people with a history of working. But how do you get a job, keep a job, do a job when the only place to go when you get off work is the park or the library?
This is the reason that a round-the-clock navigation center, as proposed and promised by Mayor Ed Murray last year, is essential. Every month that goes by without such a service is another missed rent check, another week of catching up on sleep on the bus, another week of lost jobs and income for people with nowhere to go.
In Seattle’s booming economy, jobs are easy enough to get — but a place to sleep when you’re not at work? That’s tougher.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and policy consultant. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Nation, Salon, Fast Company and Vice. View previous Access Denied columns.
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