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ITHACA, NY – Homeless young people in Tompkins County may find that the barriers to finding employment are even higher than those in other localities, according to a 2015 survey published earlier this year.

According to the study, the challenges faced by the homeless seeking employment include: lack of a permanent address or stable living situation, lack of transportation, poor work history and lack of education.

Homeless youth in Tompkins County face a few unique challenges due to the location.

Competition for low-skill jobs

The dominant employment centers in Tompkins are in high-skill sectors: education, health and human services, manufacturing and some high-tech industry. These jobs are all but walled-off for homeless youth. They most often find themselves trapped in a cycle of low-skill, low-wage underemployment.

Worse still, these youth must compete with students from Cornell and Ithaca College looking for part-time jobs to supplement their incomes.

Consider an employer’s choice: on one side, an under-educated youth – one who maybe has a criminal record, maybe doesn’t have reliable transportation, or maybe even shows clear signs of their living situation. On the other, a college student from a prestigious university.

Employment isn’t always enough

The report points out that education and employment often aren’t enough to elevate homeless youth out of their situation. According to the report: “Youth may secure a job and work hard, but low wages barely enable them to cover the basics, especially once their food stamp or housing allowances are reduced as a result of their earnings.”

Some respondents reported that holding a job could be difficult due to factors outside of their control. Those who have to rely on the bus may find their schedules impractical – if not impossible – to adhere to.

In the low-skill sector these youth generally inhabit, finding a replacement is often easier for an employer than trying to work through any scheduling complications. This only exacerbates the common problem of poor work histories.

Photo from the recently released report, conducted in part by the local agency “The Learning Web,” that tracked homeless youth in the Ithaca area
Photo from the recently released report, conducted in part by the local agency “The Learning Web,” that tracked homeless youth in the Ithaca area

Despite that adversity, 76 percent of respondents indicated they had held at least one job in the previous year. Most (57 percent), however, were not currently working. Of those working, less than half were on a full-time schedule.

Of the unemployed, more than half are actively seeking work. Half again of those had been searching for 6 months or longer.

One respondent stated simply, “Sell drugs better money.”

The education gap

Tompkins County has the highest percentage of high school graduates in the state, as well as the highest percentage of college-educated residents. This means that for the homeless residing in Tompkins County, crossing the education gap is a difficult feat.

A majority (54%) of respondents indicated that they wanted to further their education and saw it as a path to improving their lives, according to the report. However, they face many barriers, including lack of funds, substance addiction, and lack of transportation. Some respondents also cited the need for childcare as an issue.

Related: Study: Dozens of homeless youth in Ithaca are pregnant or parenting

Said one respondent, “If you don’t have a stable place to rest your head, why would education be on your mind?”

What can be done?

The report suggests a few ideas to help alleviate these flaws in the system.

The first is the introduction of long-term job preparation programs for these youths, to help them repair their work histories and develop skills to help them get and keep jobs.

Another suggestion is to develop living wage jobs with realistic opportunities for progression for those who aren’t college educated.

Those solutions suggested in the report would require substantial systemic change. In the meantime, this plea from one survey respondent may be the best solution for helping the disenfranchised: “Give them a chance. Hear them out. Help with education. Help them try to be somebody. Show them the right thing to do.”

The survey cited in this article was conducted as a collaboration between Jane Powers, PhD of Cornell, the Tompkins County Youth Services Department, the Learning Web and Young Adult Participants in the Learning Web’s Youth Outreach Program. Data was collected from 208 respondents between the ages of 13 and 24.

Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.