Working While Homeless: A Tough Job For Thousands Of Californians

One of the first steps to helping people out of homelessness is getting them a steady job. But what about the thousands of homeless Californians who are already working?

Pinning down exactly how many Californians are working while homeless is not easy. Many try to hide it. But recent estimates suggest that it's not uncommon.

A 2017 survey of the homeless population in San Francisco found 13 percent of respondents reporting part or full-time employment. That's in a city with an estimated 7,499 people experiencing homelessness.

This year, an estimated 10 percent of the 4,990 people living unsheltered in San Diego said they were currently working.

Los Angeles County has more than 50,000 residents who are homeless. Eight percent of adults surveyed in 2017 said they were working to some degree, mostly in part-time, seasonal or temporary work. Among homeless adults with children, 27 percent said they were working either part or full-time.

'You don't have a place to go'

That includes parents like Nereida, a single mother of two young daughters who works full time at a Los Angeles optometrist's office.

"I do pre-testing," said Nereida, who asked that her last name not be used in this story. "I take measurements of [patients'] eyes. After that, the doctor sees them."

Nereida hasn't told her boss that she doesn't have a stable place to live. She said she would be embarrassed. And she wonders if she would be treated differently.

"I don't want him to have a different view of me, and to think that [it] is going to affect my work life," she said.

Six days a week, she finishes her shift with a few appointment reminder calls. Then she turns off the display lights in the eyeglass cases. She sets the alarm, locks the doors and walks out to her car.

Some weeks, that's where she spends the night.

"There's been several times where I just slept in my car," she said. "I parked close to the gym, because that's where I get ready in the mornings."

Nereida moved to the Los Angeles area almost a year ago. She's been able to rent rooms for a few months here and there. Lately, she's been staying with a friend. Someone has always been willing to let her kids spend the night. But she never thought finding a place of her own would be this hard.

She admits her credit score is bad. Between car payments, gas and childcare costs, Nereida hasn't been able to save for a security deposit, plus first and last month's rent.

At $17 an hour, she earns more than minimum wage. But even if she did manage to find an apartment, the city's median rent for a two-bedroom — estimated at $1,752 by listings website Apartment List — would claim more than half of her income.

"You have to really focus on work when you're at work, and try to put on a face that everything's OK," Nereida said. "Once you're done, you break down. Because you don't have a place to go."

Homeless employees lack legal protections at work

Workers have protections on the job when it comes to factors like race and gender. But Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said, "There are no laws in California that protect you from being discriminated against based on your housing status."

Bartholow was one of the advocates pushing for a 2012 California bill that would have banned discrimination against homeless employees. Had it passed, California would have joined Rhode Island in defining homelessness as a protected class in the workplace.

The bill faced opposition from groups like the California Chamber of Commerce and it died in committee.

Bartholow looks at California's housing crisis today and wonders why legislators haven't reconsidered it.

"If we know that income is one of the best ways out of poverty, why wouldn't it be a best policy practice to make sure that people who are homeless and working are not at risk of losing their jobs or having reduced hours?" she asked.

How employers can help

Some employers have succeeded at helping their workers pull themselves out of homelessness.

"We don't have the solution of being able to solve everything with money," said Kim Wyard, CEO of the Northeast Valley Health Corporation.

"We're not a food bank. And we're not a housing organization. But we can certainly help make those connections," she said.

Wyard's organization provides health services to people who are low-income or homeless. It already has strong connections with the Los Angeles homeless support system.

So when one or more of her own employees have fallen into homelessness, Wyard said those connections were a huge help. Calls to a group that provides housing for homeless families, LA Family Housing, recently helped one employee and her family get back on their feet.

Wyard's advice to other employers worried about homelessness in their workforce is to know who to call for help.

"I think that it may take a little bit of digging to put a homeless resource list together for your staff," she said. "But those resources are there."

Of course, for that approach to work, employees would need to feel comfortable telling their bosses about their situation.

Nereida, the optometrist's assistant, said her employer treats her well and pays her fairly.

But she said when she looks for housing assistance, she feels people's image of homelessness works against her. She describes herself as a soccer mom, and she looks the part.

"I've gotten comments like, 'Sorry, but if I looked at you, I wouldn't assume that you're homeless,'" Nereida said.

"Do I have to have ripped clothes? Dirty clothes? I have a job. So I can't come to work unpresentable or unprofessional."

Nereida is not sure how long her current housing situation at a friend's place will last. Her biggest fear is that she'll end up back in her car. But this time, with her kids in the back seat.

Copyright 2018 KPCC. To see more, visit KPCC.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Now to California, where thousands of people wake up in cars, tents and shelters and then get ready for work. The state is facing a huge shortage of affordable housing, and that means even full-time workers can find themselves falling into homelessness. David Wagner reports from member station KPCC.

DAVID WAGNER, BYLINE: Nereida is wrapping up a shift at her job in an LA optometry shop.

NEREIDA: I am calling to confirm your appointment with us for tomorrow.

WAGNER: At the end of each shift, six days a week, she turns off the display lights in the eyeglass cases. She sets the alarm, locks the doors and walks out to her car. And some weeks, that's where she stays.

NEREIDA: There's been several times where I just slept in my car. I parked close to the gym because that's where I get ready in the mornings.

WAGNER: On any given night, LA County has close to 16,000 people living in vehicles. Nereida came to LA with her two young daughters almost a year ago. We're only using her first name because she hasn't told her boss she doesn't have a stable place to live.

NEREIDA: I don't want him to have a different view of me. And to think that I'm homeless is going to affect my work life.

WAGNER: Nereida is staying with a friend for now. Someone has always been willing to let her kids spend the night, but she never thought finding a place of her own would be this hard. She makes $17 an hour, but the area's median rent for a two-bedroom apartment would claim more than half her income.

NEREIDA: You have to really focus on work when you're at work and try to put on a face that everything's OK. Once you're done, you break down because you don't have a place to go.

WAGNER: The numbers on the working homeless in California are only estimates from annual city surveys. In LA, about 8 percent of adults who are homeless say they're doing some kind of work. But 27 percent of those with children, like Nereida, say they're working part or full time. Employees have protections on the job when it comes to things like their race and gender, but...

JESSICA BARTHOLOW: There are no laws in California that protect you from being discriminated against based on your housing status.

WAGNER: Jessica Bartholow with the Western Center on Law and Poverty pushed for a 2012 California bill that would have changed that. It was modeled on a Rhode Island law, the first to give homeless workers these kinds of rights. But the bill died in committee. Bartholow thinks California should reconsider it.

BARTHOLOW: If we know that income is one of the best ways out of poverty, why wouldn't it be a best policy practice to make sure that people who are homeless and who are working are not at risk of losing their jobs or having reduced hours?

WAGNER: Some employers do try to help. The Northeast Valley Health Corporation provides services to people who are low-income or homeless. There have been a few times when their own workers, the very people helping the homeless, have themselves lost their homes. CEO Kim Wyard says their connections to LA's homeless support system have been a huge help.

KIM WYARD: I think that it may take a little bit of digging to put a homeless resource list together for your staff, but those resources are there.

WAGNER: When Nereida, the optometry shop worker, has reached out to those housing resources, she says the reaction hasn't always been helpful.

NEREIDA: Do I have to look like, you know, ripped clothes, dirty clothes? Like, I don't know what they expect me to look like. I have a job, so I can't come to work unpresentable or unprofessional.

WAGNER: Nereida's biggest fear is that she'll end up back in her car but this time, with her kids in the back seat. For NPR News, I'm David Wagner in Los Angeles.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This story was part of the statewide California Dream collaboration. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.