Homelessness and work- moving beyond the margins?
Authors: Katy Jones
19 July 2013
This week (15th July) Broadway published their final report tracking the experiences of 50 homeless people as they enter work. The reasons why homeless people face such a high level of labour market disadvantage and what it takes to overcome this are poorly understood, due both to the complex nature of homelessness and a lack of robust data on the issue. Longitudinal studies of this kind are rare, as are studies focusing on employment. As such, the findings of ‘Keeping Work’ and its recommendations for policymakers, support organisations, employers and homeless people themselves are likely to prove invaluable, particularly as more clients of the homelessness sector are expected to move into work as tighter benefit conditionality kicks in.
‘Keeping Work’ highlights the many benefits that employment can bring, including increasing self-confidence, work experience and skills, securing independent accommodation, and (with the right support) improving mental health problems. Yet this and other research clearly shows that work is not a panacea, particularly where it is characterised by low pay and insecurity. If work is to offer a route out of homelessness, an approach that seeks to help homeless people move beyond the margins of the labour market is clearly needed.
Whilst the range of jobs held by participants in the Broadway study reflects the diversity of the client group (e.g. from cleaning to accountancy), an overall low skills profile, often combined with long histories of unemployment and worklessness, means that many homeless people will face the bottom, low-skilled and often more precarious end of the labour market.
In-work poverty is relatively common in the UK, and for most of the participants in this study, the wages they were on, at, or around the minimum. For some, the cost of simply moving into work led to financial struggles and anxiety, making it more difficult to sustain their transition. Low paid work also tends to be less secure. Some argue that temporary positions provide a ‘stepping stone’ into more secure employment, but the evidence for this is contested and for the participants in this study the termination of temporary/casual contracts was one of the main reasons why people were unable to stay in work. Whilst unemployment does not always cause homelessness (and vice versa), losing work is likely to make it more difficult for homeless people to sustain their transition into independent living. The transition from ‘homeless’ to ‘housed’ is a fragile one - whilst entering work can give stability and structure, losing it may mean going back to square one (or regressing even further).
Employers seem to have been pivotal in determining whether or not the homeless people in the study were able to sustain work. The report highlights the value of good HR and management practices – participants had a range of support needs (e.g. mental health problems, substance abuse issues, criminal records) – and the importance of understanding, flexible employers here cannot be overstated (this echoes recent Work Foundation research on Working With Schizophrenia).
If homeless people are to move beyond the margins of the labour market, support also needs to be in place not just to sustain them in their current employment, but to enable them to continue to develop and move towards higher paid and more secure work. The report recommends that employers develop opportunities to allow employees to learn and progress; yet opportunities to do this are often particularly limited at the bottom of the labour market.
Whilst there is certainly a role for employers in enabling retention and progression, it is also important that individuals are able to identify and access further opportunities outside of work to develop skills and gain qualifications which will help them progress in the labour market. Moreover, for organisations helping homeless people into work, helping to address skills needs and promoting the value of seeking out and taking up opportunities to continue to learn, train and develop (and information about how to do this) should arguably feature in any employment support and guidance that aims to move clients beyond the margins of the labour market. Particularly where homelessness agencies are unable to continue sustained support as clients move into work and/or accommodation, signposting to alternative services in the community is important.
A better understanding of what it takes to help homeless people into work is vital, if the gap between the 2-14 per cent currently in work and 77 per cent who want it, is to be narrowed. Yet without longer term strategies to move them from the margins, there is a limit to the extent to which employment can help people to overcome homelessness and live independent lives. Better progression opportunities are vital for all workers in low wage and precarious employment, but where transitions into work are coupled with transitions out of homelessness, the stakes are much higher.
The Work Foundation’s Bottom Ten Million programme investigates the challenges faced by those working in low-wage jobs. Later this year, we will be publishing new research on the prospects for low-wage workers, what policy makers can do to boost mobility, and how to raise job quality. Katy is also currently working towards a PhD investigating the role of literacy and numeracy education, in strategies to overcome the labour market disadvantage of single homeless people.
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