Siloam Mission Story: Why Don't They Just Get a Job?

By John Mohan and Kent Dueck, originally published in Faith Today

The problems faced by homeless people are complex. Solutions start with compassion. Just get a job! Perhaps you’ve never said that out loud, but you may have thought it. Why are people living on the streets? Why do they need shelters? It isn’t hard to get a job.

But simple answers aren’t always as simple as they appear. Picture one of us on a recent business trip, arriving at our hotel only to realize we’d left our wallet in the cab. What taxi company? Uh, can’t remember. So we explain to the front desk worker, and they attempt to locate the taxi company – without success. One well-meaning staff person finally suggests going back to the airport to find out which cab we had used.

How exasperating! How is a person supposed to get to the airport if their money, identification and credit cards are all in the missing wallet? How useless that the hotel staff weren’t offering a ride to the airport or the money for transportation. A complex problem was met only with a simplistic answer but no solutions.

It’s also too simplistic when Canadians, including many Christians, naïvely ask, “Why don’t the homeless just get jobs? After all, they could work if they really wanted to.” Unfortunately, the issues of homelessness are complex. And getting a job is one thing – keeping one is another matter altogether.

Most homeless people have sustained trauma upon trauma, including the entrapment of addictions or severe emotional and mental problems. Add to that poor social skills and lack of a permanent address, of access to a phone and of adequate personal hygiene. All of these are obstacles to employment.

There are more obstacles. Many chronically unemployed people have seen generations of unemployment. It becomes a battle to overcome the norms that they have seen in life.

Literacy can be a major obstacle. A past graduate of Winnipeg’s Inner City Youth Alive program lost his job because he couldn’t read and was getting orders wrong in the shipping department. It came as a major blow to him, and he couldn’t decide what to do. “I want to get my Grade 12 but I have kids to feed, but now I can’t feed my kids because I don’t have Grade 12.”

What business owner, once he or she has learned that the inner-city poor and homeless people usually struggle with not just one but several of these obstacles, would hire such a person?

Helping such people transition from poverty, addictions and hopelessness requires long-term, complex solutions – ones that begin with a biblical model of compassion.

Consider the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) and his reaction to the wounded, robbed man.

The Samaritan did not criticize or judge. He looked beyond the reasons and saw the need. What a wonderful example of God’s grace. The Samaritan didn’t respond with simplistic advice, but sacrificial actions. It was dangerous and inconvenient for him to stop, but he did. Not to criticize, but to help.

The Samaritan also took a long-term approach. After bandaging the man’s wounds and putting him on his own donkey, he took him to an inn to complete the healing process. The Samaritan knew that wounds of this magnitude and complexity would not be healed in an event, but would require a long and costly process. He told the innkeeper that he would cover any additional costs related to the man’s healing.

Jesus concludes with a pointed question that we can ask ourselves. Which of these three was truly the wounded man’s neighbour? It was the one who responded with compassionate actions to a complex problem.