Homelessness is on the rise in the United States. According to EndHomelessness.org, the homeless population increased by two percent between 2019 and 2020, marking a fourth consecutive year of growth. High housing costs, disability, racial inequality, domestic violence, and lack of income are all examples of factors that may play a role in causing homelessness.

If only individuals experiencing homelessness could “just get a job,” wouldn’t that solve the problem? Well, it’s rarely so simple. In 2017, only 22 percent of adults experiencing homelessness were confirmed to have been employed that year. While it’s apparent that some individuals can gain and keep employment, these low figures suggest there may be something more to it than the usual stereotypes surrounding the issue.

Barriers to Employment for People Experiencing Homelessness

Aside from the fact that homelessness is a barrier in itself, people experiencing homelessness often face multiple barriers to entry. The instability and uncertainty of homelessness can make it seem nearly impossible to find and sustain a job. No permanent address, long waitlists, red tape, shelter regulations, and discriminatory stereotypes are only a few obstacles that can stand in the way of employment.

When these barriers overlap, it’s easy to spiral into doubt and fear of ever finding a way out or a way to earn a living. Let’s look at a few common barriers to employment for people experiencing homelessness and discuss how to overcome them. Later, in this guide, we’ll discuss specific resources for overcoming these barriers to employment.

A lack of education and vocational experience can be a roadblock to employment.

It is difficult to imagine even wanting to seek a job without the appropriate educational background or sufficient work experience. This barrier especially affects young people experiencing homelessness. The national average graduation rate as of 2019 was 85.8% overall, while the average graduation rate for students experiencing homelessness was 18 percentage points lower at 67.7%. Without education, it’s hard to get a job, and without a job, there is no way to gain professional experience. It’s a complex cycle to break, but there is help.

Vocational training programs and alternative trade schools are one way for youth and adults alike to get the experience they need to get their foot in the door. A lack of training and knowledge can become an easier hurdle to jump with a little intentional effort. Some of these vocational programs are also designed to help new workers find transitional housing, allowing participants to transition out of homelessness as they work their new job.

Individuals with physical disabilities find it hard to access and perform certain jobs.

Physically disabled individuals come up against both literal and figurative barriers when it comes to employment in the midst of homelessness. Whether performing tasks or accessing the workplace, individuals experiencing homelessness and physical disability may require special accommodation from employers who may be reluctant to give it.

In 2020, nearly one-quarter of individuals experiencing homelessness were reported to be physically disabled. That’s roughly 145,000 people who may need employment accommodations to be successful on the job. The local Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) may pay for a disability assessment, allowing eligible individuals access to vocational support. These services include training, transportation, uniforms, etc.

Mental health challenges make it hard to obtain and maintain employment.

People with mental health challenges may find it hard to find a job that will accommodate their needs. If they do get a job, keeping that role may be difficult given the episodic nature of certain mental illnesses. About 20% of the homeless population is considered severely mentally ill. On a single night in January 2020, the HUD recorded 120,642 severely mentally ill individuals who were experiencing homelessness. Although this is a significant issue, it’s not hopeless.

State Supported Employment Services Programs often use the Individual Placement Support model to help individuals with severe mental illness find employment through individualized services. These organizations are not specialized for people experiencing homelessness, but their programs are focused on helping anyone looking for employment.

Substance use, and addiction threaten job stability.

Like mental health issues, substance use, and addiction pose similar threats to employment. A 2020 statistic shows that 16% of people experiencing homelessness are chronically abusing substances. These issues often interfere with the flow of daily life, making it difficult to find and hold down jobs. It’s never too late to get help, and many programs are available to those who need support.

Some programs integrate addiction treatment with employment services, offering accountability and motivation to individuals ready to make a change. Random drug tests, harm reduction strategies, and an opportunity to learn job skills make integrated programs a smart option.

Employers may shy away from hiring people with criminal records.

Criminal records have a way of haunting people for a long time. According to a study by the National Communication Association, participants who had criminal records from when they were younger had an even harder time finding employment. Permanent marks on a record can have lasting and devastating effects, creating yet another barrier to employment. However, some laws are working toward giving job seekers a second chance.

The All of Us or None organization created the “Ban the Box” concept to prevent discrimination based on criminal records. For certain jobs in 35 states and 150 cities, the questions about conviction history have been successfully removed. This effectively allows job applicants to be fairly considered before being hired. During his presidency, President Obama even initiated an incentive program for companies to encourage hiring ex-convicts.

Non-Competitive Schedule A Employment

As we mentioned above, experiencing homelessness creates barriers to entry surrounding employment. Often, individuals may be tasked with overcoming more than one barrier, multiplying the difficulty of finding and keeping a job. Although these intersections of hardship may be challenging, the federal government provides an exception for eligible individuals with disabilities. Schedule A and non-competitive employment programs are making way for people living at the intersection of disability and homelessness.

What is the Schedule A Hiring Authority?

Individuals can bypass the normal hiring process for federal employees with Schedule A employment. This special exception removes the competitive pressure from the process. Individuals with an intellectual, psychiatric, or severe physical disability can apply for these federal positions without competing against the general public. Employment is never guaranteed, but this program allows for a little extra help toward a federal job opportunity.

Who qualifies for non-competitive or Schedule A employment?

Candidates must first prove their eligibility, providing the appropriate documentation for “proof of disability.” Specific job qualifications must also be met, proving the candidate has the necessary experiences and competency to perform the job. Positions are then granted on a trial basis with the possibility of permanent employment after the probationary period, dependent on their job performance.

Head over to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission website to learn more about how to apply for positions and prepare the necessary Schedule A documentation. Candidates ready to look for open positions can visit the USAJOBS website, the government’s official online job board. Federal agencies use this site to match qualified American and foreign national candidates for work within the civil service. Not all agencies use this website, so be sure to do the necessary research on jobs they may not list.

Employment Support for People Experiencing Homelessness

Help is available to those who genuinely want to work. The federal government provides programs and services for individuals experiencing homelessness and those who are severely disabled. These services exist to bridge the gap created by the intersection of multiple barriers to employment, offering vocational rehabilitation and training to eligible individuals. Homeless veterans and veterans who have been previously incarcerated will also find services tailored toward their unique needs to ensure successful re-entry into their communities. We’ve compiled a list of resources to help a variety of individuals experiencing homelessness find employment opportunities.

State Supported Employment Services

State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agencies are government offices created to support local communities with a variety of services, including the State Supported Employment Services Program. Grants are distributed through this program to each state for developing and administering employment services for significantly disabled adults and youth, connecting disabled individuals with job opportunities. VR agencies are located across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and four Territories. There are programs within these agencies that serve people with various disabilities and specifically disabled individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Visit the Rehabilitation Services Administration website to find a local representative.

Health Care for Reentry Veterans

The HCRV program was created to prevent veterans from experiencing homelessness after incarceration. When incarcerated veterans eventually reenter society, HRCV services provide a way to integrate into their communities successfully. One way that’s done is through pre-release assessments. These pre-emptive tests help determine the level of assistance needed after individuals are released from prison. These services connect veterans with referrals to medical, social, and employment services and short-term case management. Reach out to a local HCRV specialist to determine eligibility and learn more about HCRV programs.

Homeless Veterans Community Employment Services

The HVCES is a program created by the VA to help homeless veterans find employment. Over 150 Community Employment Coordinators (CECs) across the nation offer vocational development services to veterans. The mission of these CECs is to connect employers with veterans exiting homelessness by pre-screening candidates for education and skill levels. They work to facilitate the onboarding process and help veterans determine how their military experiences translate into civilian employment. They help with job procurement, offer additional VA support with housing, health care, and social services. Take a look at the Community Employment Coordinator contact list to find local assistance.

Job Corps

With 50 years of experience and over 2 million individuals educated, Job Corps is the nation’s largest residential career training program. Young people ages 16 to 24 may be eligible to receive assistance with completing their general high school degree and then receive technical education. Additionally, Job Corps will provide:

  • Room and board
  • Professional training for specific job fields
  • Assistance with finding employment in that field

Childcare, transportation, and housing support are also available to Job Corps participants. Successful graduates will then begin employment, join the military, start an apprenticeship, or continue higher education. Find a Job Corps Center near you to learn more today.

Ticket to Work

The Ticket to Work Program is an amazing opportunity for Social Security disability beneficiaries ages 18 to 64. Individuals who desire to be financially independent can access employment through the government’s Employment Network provider. The transition into work is made easier by allowing individuals to continue receiving benefits during the initial hiring process. If it turns out that a participant is unable to work due to their disability, benefits will be resumed. Visit the Social Security Administration website to search for a service provider near you and determine the type of employment that best fits your needs.


CareerOneStop provides tools, employment information, and financial aid to job seekers eager to work. Explore career paths, find local training near you, and explore job listings on the organization’s website. The homepage greets visitors with links to a variety of specialized help for young adults, veterans, workers with convictions, disabled workers, workers over 55, and more. The self-assessment will help you determine your interests, skills, and work values. For those looking for training, financial aid and scholarships are available to eligible participants. Be sure to check out the career exploration page to determine work goals and further professional development.

Senior Community Services Employment Program

Older individuals experiencing homelessness could benefit from the work-based job training program, SCSEP. Low-income and unemployed eligible seniors are trained to work within non-profit and public roles at hospitals, schools, senior centers, and daycare centers. To be eligible, candidates must be unemployed, fall within the income limitations, and be at least 55 years old. Participants can expect to work part-time at around 20 hours per week and get paid federal, state, or local minimum wage (whichever is highest). Use CareerOneStop’s Older Worker Program Finder to locate your local SCSEP project.

Local Homeless Assistance

In general, individuals looking for employment help or help with homelessness, can always find their local homeless assistance agency through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website. This webpage contains links dedicated to each state that lead to a long list of resources for individuals experiencing homelessness. Hud also provides a continuum of care services such as help hotlines, housing assistance, food bank information, and details on other homeless service groups. There are also links to state-specific vocational training and employment services.

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