Why Don’t Homeless People Just Get Jobs?

Many already have jobs—not easy ones, either.

The refrain of “Get a job!” is as old as poverty and panhandling. But one of the hard truths of homelessness is that many people who qualify as homeless work hard and still can’t afford rent.

There’s Shorty, camping along the I-205 bicycle path, who last month showed a reporter a cellphone image of his 2016 income, from Quest Staffing and two office furniture stores.

“I only made $14,138 last year,” Shorty says.

There’s Jerry Vermillion in Slabtown, who works at the Astro gas station on Northwest 21st Avenue while sleeping on the streets nearby. And there are Marne and Heather B., also living along the I-205 path, housekeepers at a local motel. “I work full time,” Marne, 44, says. “I worked 10½ hours yesterday.”

“We’re not just bums,” Heather B. added. “We work our asses off.”

Statistics on homeless people who work are elusive.

“Unfortunately, we [do] not have data for people who are working but homeless,” says Andrea Fogue, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Employment Department.

But a few numbers do exist. In Dignity Village, Portland’s oldest organized homeless camp, in deep Northeast Portland, about 20 of the 53 village residents have a job, spokesman Rick Proudfoot says.

That figure doesn’t include homeless people who work part time. People like Scott Layman, Niki Booze and Heather Hill, who work a job that would scare the piss out of most people.

It’s a Thursday night in North Portland, and motorcycles are buzzing across dirt hills in a race for cash prizes. A rider wipes out in the third race, in a deep gully going into a turn. Few spectators or other riders notice, but a “flagger” immediately runs onto the dirt path and starts waving a large yellow flag to redirect the others.

The job of flagging isn’t for everyone. It’s loud and dirty and can be dangerous. For Layman, Booze and Hill, though, it’s just another shift of Thursday Night Motocross at Portland International Raceway.

“We’ve all danced with [the motorcyclists] at one point or another,” Hill says. “Niki got hit once.”

Dignity Village residents have worked the gig for 15 years, according to Rick Wylder, a former pro rider who co-sponsors TNMX. “Talk about loyalty,” Wylder says. “Those guys are here rain or shine. They’re always the first ones here, and the last to leave.”

Wylder says word about the crew has leaked to other motocross tracks in the area. “They’re all trying to recruit our guys,” he says.

Layman, 54, grew up riding motocross as a youth near Madras. His eyes shine when he talks about flagging, even though he once broke his ankle on the job.

“Somebody’s got to jump out and protect the kids when they’re down,” he says.
Layman and other flaggers typically get paid $35 for a TNMX shift. It’s not much, but it’s part of his savings goal: to purchase a home in a motor park.

The irregular pay of the “gig” economy, combined with the challenges inherent to houselessness, can make getting back a Herculean effort.

“I feel like [work] is the most misunderstood aspect of homelessness,” says Shari Dunn, executive director of Dress for Success Oregon, a nonprofit that helps disadvantaged women with professional attire, networking and skills. “There are many homeless people who are working, but there are all these barriers to employment, and it makes it hard to keep that job.”

Marne, living along the I-205 trail, says she earns $111 a day housekeeping, but June 14 she called her boss and begged off because her campsite was being swept by the Oregon Department of Transportation and the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office.

Her boss knows she’s homeless, she says, and Marne doesn’t expect to lose her job. Still, she says, not being able to shower and being awakened “all night” are hardly a recipe for success.

“The hardest part,” she says, “is being afraid every day that I’ll have no place to come back to.”

This story was first published in Willamette Week. Down and Out in Portland, Oregon is a weekly column that answers the city’s most pressing questions about homelessness by taking them to the people who know the issue best: those living on the streets. Look for a new installment weekly throughout the summer.

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