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.