The Homeless Work Ethic

I'm sure that, at some point in your life, you've heard at least one person being referred to as a "lazy bum". You might have been the one to call them that. Well, I'm here to tell you that most "bums" are not lazy at all. During a recent media frenzy that focused on my use of the internet and social media to advocate pro bono for the homeless, there were those who gave me accolades and those who essentially called me lazy and said that I should just get a job -- as if homeless advocacy isn't work. Also, a Huffington Post article erroneously said that I have not worked a full-time job since 1994. I, therefore, saw fit to inform people as to how hard other homeless people and I really do work. I apologize in advance for what promises to be a longer-than-usual blog post, as there is much to be said about the hard work of the homeless.

Before addressing the paid work done by the homeless, I must say that just BEING homeless is a lot of work. Homeless people often need to walk 2 miles from where they sleep to where they eat breakfast. (I've actually walked as many as 4 miles.) Then they trek to wherever they spend the remainder of their morning before going to lunch. They then have to walk back to the shelter or their outdoor sleeping spot for the night. In many cases, the shelters don't allow a person to leave their belongings there during the day, which explains why some of them walk the streets with 2 or 3 bags. All of this walking and carrying bags is extremely labor-intensive.

Then there is the paid work done by the homeless. Many of them get up at 4 AM in order to be at the labor hall (day labor, temp service) by 5 AM. They sign-in and wait for a job assignment. Sometimes they sit for 2, 3 even 4 hours and don't get any work. When they do get work, many do construction labor. Some of the homeless perform trades through the labor hall. They may load/unload semi-trucks manually. I've done much construction labor and truck loading/unloading myself. I've also erected European event tents as big as 80 ft. x 120 ft. and worked in many of the kitchens at Disney World in Celebration City, FL (near Orlando).

The homeless often help to build apartments and condominiums that they could never afford to live in. They cater and wash dishes at parties that they could never afford to attend. They load and unload merchandise that they could never afford to buy. The homeless are often working behind the scenes to render products and services to the well-off, only to be snubbed by the same, called a lazy bum and told to get a job. I'm left to wonder where this country would be without the work that is done by the homeless.

Housed people often wonder why it is that the capable homeless don't spend every waking hour looking for work and a way out of their predicament. Well, first of all, they must spend much of their time walking to the soup kitchen to get a meal, as indicated earlier. Then, if they don't have bus fare, they'll have to walk to the places where they intend to put in job applications. That's not to speak of the fact that they probably need to be at the shelter by a certain time in order to get a bed. That said, what a homeless person needs to do in order to acquire daily sustenance often conflicts with what they need to do in order to get a job and rise above their circumstances. They, therefore, often get stuck in the daily routine of going to the labor hall and then to the shelter. And, before you know it, they've been doing the labor hall-to-shelter routine for 2...3...5...10 years and counting. Such was the case with me (prior to me becoming a homeless advocate, of course).

As a child, I watched the T.V. movie "Angel City" starring Ralph Waite. It was about a tomato and cucumber farmer who treated his employees like slaves. He also made them buy his liquor (and deducted it from their pay anyway if they didn't). Little did I realize at the time just how realistic the movie was. As a homeless adult, I've worked in six different crops: white potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, tobacco, watermelons and cabbage. I've seen first-hand a farming contractor drive the thousand miles from Benson, NC to Orlando, FL to pick up laborers at the homeless shelter and take them to Benson. It would seem that the locals are onto him and won't work for the contractor. It's easier to get homeless people from far away, drive them into unfamiliar territory and pay them at or below minimum wage. These days, rather than forcing the laborers to buy liquor, the contractor sells crack cocaine to them -- sometimes on credit. I've seen where a person owed more than the amount of their check after getting drugs on credit from the contractor. Some who've tried to leave while they owed drug money have never been heard from again. I came to realize that the movie "Angel City" was a depiction of what happens in real life.

One of my two times being the victim of wage theft was while working on a potato farm in North Carolina. Everyone had worked 60 hours that week. But the contractor deducted 12 hours for the times during which the grader broke down. (By law he is supposed to pay us for all hours that we are present on the job site.) Out of approximate 15 workers, only myself and one other man spoke up and received our additional 12 hours of pay. I had begun to report the contractor to the Dept. of Labor anyway, but it ran into trouble and then the crew left town shortly thereafter.

Now for a quick recap of points that I've made: Being homeless is labor-intensive in and of itself. The homeless often do thankless jobs that benefit monied people, though from behind the scenes. The homeless work on many of the country's farms and get exploited by their drug-dealer bosses who also underpay them. All in all, the underpaid, exploited homeless are putting food on your table and clothes on your back while keeping the prices of what you buy down. Where would this country be without the cheap labor afforded them by the homeless?

Before I end this post, I'll give a running list of the work that I've done over the years:

At 5 years old (the year the Sheptocks took me in), it was my job to carry the small trash cans outside and dump them into the big can.

My parents moved into a mansion in Peapack, NJ the following year. For several years thereafter, it was my job to go around the house with a brother and a large trash bag and collect trash from each room.

From the age of 7 or 8 until I left home at age 18, I shared a room with my brother Martin who has Down's syndrome (is mongoloid). I would dress him every morning, brush his teeth, watch him eat breakfast and see him off to school. I've also helped with other retarded and/or handicapped children that my parents adopted (including taking them to the bathroom and bathing them).

I've had the chore of vacuuming the house (usually with one other sibling).

I've washed many a dish and done several other indoor chores.

My father (deceased) used to love to get up every Saturday morning and wave his arm as he shouted to his sons, "Men, come on outside! We have work to do!" (at least until my mother stopped him from calling us "men"). He would then have us do yard work from chopping down/trimming trees to raking leaves to digging ditches to shoveling snow. He loved a good worker.

I got a full-time, summer job in 1986 at the age of 17, after completing my junior year. (My birthday is February 15th. So, I started kindergarten at 5, turned 6 during that school year and graduated 12th grade at age 18. I never stayed back.) I worked as a maintenance man for the City of Interlachen, FL. I went part-time during my senior year and graduated in June 1987.

I worked at Shands Hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville, FL from 1988 to 1994. I was a tractor driver. The "tractor" was an indoor train with an electric motor manufactured by Taylor-Dunn. I would use it to drive trash and dirty linen out to the loading dock as well as to drive new supplies and clean linen into the building. I would also empty the trash and linen chutes and run the incinerator.

From February 1994 (when I first became homeless) until 2005, I worked at various labor halls and on various farms. During that time, I landed 3 "permanent" jobs out of the labor hall. In each instance, the boss who'd ordered workers from the labor hall liked my work so much that he asked me to stay on permanently. (Word to the wise: No job in this country is "permanent".)

In 2005, I came to Washington, DC as a peace activist and became a homeless advocate the following year. I landed a part-time job in April of 2009 and left it on September of that same year. Other than that short stint, I've been working pro bono since coming to DC. Nonetheless, homeless advocacy is indeed hard work. And, as long as you'll work for free, you'll always be in high demand.

That said, I usually get up around 7 AM and oftentimes don't get to bed until midnight. That is especially true since my recent media frenzy. I am literally weeks behind in answering the e-mails and Facebook messages that I've received as a result of my media exposure. I spend many evenings at Starbucks drinking coffee and doing e-mail until they close. That said, this media exposure and the messages that I continue to receive because of it (including the messages that call me lazy) are keeping me really busy these days.

Writing this blog post.....err article has taken much hard work. But, I am only one of many hard-working homeless people. In closing I'll ask you again: Where would this country be without the cheap labor afforded them by the homeless? The homeless DO have a strong work ethic after all. I hope that I never again hear someone being called a "lazy bum".


Anonymous said…
I agree with you one hundred percent. Some of the hardest working people in the world are so-called "homeless bums". They have dignity just like everyone else and should be treated with the respect they deserve by nature of their God-given humanity. Bless you Eric for all you do to get the message out. Don't ever lose heart!
NewJA said…
Could not possibly have said it better man. Also, once you fall below a certain line, your sense of belonging is destroyed and you find yourself just fighting to survive and in a state of mental exhaustion just trying to get through the day where the basic needs are unmet.

I support what you are doing 100% and this civilization we live in, which is disintegrating right before our eyes, really needs this kind of eye-opener. Keep up the good work and lets get all the smoke and mirrors knocked out of the way.
Anonymous said…
I agree NewJA, our "civilization" is kinda going through a lean period where we are running on fumes. Soon there will be no middle class to speak of. I've also noticed that people are decidedly more callous and hateful these days.
Cjones said…
I'm going to push back on a few things you mentioned... I work in homeless services, so have recently begun to follow your work.

First off, no one's accusing the employed homeless of being lazy- the "lazy bum" idea refers to those unwilling to look for a job, or to accept a job they feel is below them- choosing instead to rely on government subsidies allowed by their working brothers and sisters- rich and poor.

Secondly... you attempt to show how I and other employed individuals get our clothing and food from the homeless... just the opposite, some might argue. In fact, I provide clothes to the homeless (I donate to shelters several times a year) and other services through taxes I pay and countless volunteer hours I contribute. No one's offered me anything in return, despite the fact that I barely get by each month financially.

You refer to a group as "monied people..." can you define that? At what salary or income does a person become "monied?"

Finally... your use of the term "mongaloid" can be considered very offensive to those of us of Asian descent. Small detail, but worth considering so as to be inclusive and sensitive in your language :).
Eric Sheptock said…
C. Jones,

I wasn't saying that housed/working people get food or clothes from the homeless for free. I was saying that you pay for these items, but that it is often homeless people who labor to produce these items. I know that many like yourself donate to the homeless. I was showing how important the labor of the homeless is to our society, not saying that you get anything for free.

I didn't have a particular pay range in mind when I said "monied" people. I could have just as easily said "housed" people. I was addressing how the work of the homeless benefits housed people (who, of course, pay for what they get) and how the housed people often don'tr realize that they are receiving a product or service from a homeless person.

I didn't mean to offend anyone with my use of the term "mongoloid". like the term "retarded", it was an acceptable term when I was growing up. I haven't yet gotten up to par on this political correctness concept where formerly acceptable terms are no longer accepted. Those with Down's syndrome are called "Monogoloid" because they always have Mongolian facial features, not as a way of being derogatory or speaking down on Asians. I put the term in parentheses so as to help anyone who is not familiar with the term "Down's syndrome" to make the connection.
Regina Holliday said…
Thank you so much for writing this post, Eric. I saw that movie "Angel City" when I was 8 years old and it stayed with me all these years. I remember the horrible feeling I had even as a child when I realized that they could never get out of the debt to the "company store." It made me really understand that old song "Load Sixteen Tons." I think those that disparage the poor or unhoused have absolutely no idea how hard it is just to get by when you at the edge of poverty.

After my late husband Fred died, and I spoke of his years without insurance and his eventual death. Many comments concluded that we must have been "lazy bums" since we couldn't afford family insurance. We had been working 6 jobs between the two of us. The money we made barely covered rent in DC.

I greatly admire you for all you are doing. It is so much more important to so many people, than if you were just working endless shift work and just supporting yourself. You have devoted your life to helping others and work with great depravations to do such work.

Thank you.

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