Employment Greater Than Housing?

Hierarchy of NeedsThis article from CBC News Kitchener-Waterloo speaks to city councilor Sean Strickland’s suggestion that we should re-direct resources from affordable housing to a job skill match program.  His rationale is that in the context of both high social assistance case loads and job postings going unfilled, focusing more on employment than housing will push the needle from managing homelessness to ending homelessness.  Strickland also notes the downloading of housing services from the feds and the province to municipalities, at the same time as resources are less available.

I both agree and disagree with Councilor Strickland.  I do agree that the only ultimate way to end poverty is to obtain employment.  Even if one were to access every benefit possible on social assistance, including disability, it does not bring you above the poverty line.  Conversely, full-time employment at minimum wage will.  Therefore, the ultimate and solitary self-sufficient end to poverty is through gainful employment.

That said, there are a few concerns I have with proposing a shift of resources from housing to employment.  The first is that individuals experiencing homelessness are often several steps down the hierarchy of needs from gainful employment.  People experiencing concurrent addictions and mental health challenges will have difficulties being successful through an application process.  People who have been homelessness for an extended period of time also often carry their poverty in their face, and do not fair well in job interviews.  As well, the low literacy rates among people experiencing homelessness are well documented, so many are not employment ready.

The second concern I have is about playing the determinants of health off against each other, as if we must choose either employment or housing.  Employment will have populist appeal as it fits a vision of removing those undeserving off assistance off the public roll.  However, what housing first has taught us is that stable housing is a necessary prerequisite for enhancing one’s current situation.  Therefore, to expect people to obtain stable employment when they have unstable housing is not necessarily productive.  This is not to say that employment will not benefit people, it’s to say that employment cannot be considered without understanding the broader challenges faced by an individual.