One of the common misconceptions shared by policy makers and the general public is that people who are experiencing homelessness do not work. Most homeless social programs and advocacy efforts focus on issues related to affordable housing and ignore the realities of low-income labor. Where jobs programs do exist, they wrongly assume that people without access to housing also lack education and skills.
The troubling reality is that most people who are homeless in Washington, DC also work. They do the essential jobs in construction, manufacturing, landscaping, waste removal, retail, restaurants, and hotels that allow the city to function properly. In spite of our dependence on their labor, many low-wage workers are unable to afford the basic necessities of life in an increasingly expensive region. Should they be able to live in the town that they have built and kept functioning?
Drawing on the first hand stories of unhoused people’s working experiences, “Whose Town?” seeks to offer insight into the complicated reality of low-wage labor in Washington, DC. The site draws upon twenty-one oral history interviews that were conducted in 2015 in locations across downtown Washington, DC. The participants in the project primarily include able-bodied single men and women who live in downtown shelters. Few social programs are geared for this category of people, who are expected to fend for themselves.
How do they find jobs? What are the barriers to employment that they face? When they do secure work, what kinds of jobs do they find? What are the conditions they work under? What educational experiences have they had and skills have they learned? Are these skills recognized and rewarded? What is it like to make one’s way in Washington, DC with the wages they earn? Is getting a job enough?