Breaking Stereotypes: Study Finds Half of LA's Homeless Recently Held Down A Job

A new study busts the myth that people are becoming homeless in Los Angeles because they're not willing to work.

In fact, the vast majority of people receiving homeless services in L.A. have held down jobs, some right up until the time they became homeless.

"That runs counter to the notion that a lot of these individuals are unemployable or may not want to work," said UCLA economics professor Till von Wachter, lead author of the study published Thursday.

Von Wachter and other researchers with the California Policy Lab at UCLA looked at the employment history of people falling into homelessness by comparing data from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) with records from the state's Employment Development Department.

They found that nearly half (47%) of working age adults enrolling in homeless services in L.A. had worked in the four years prior to becoming homeless. And about one in five were working in the same quarter they showed up in LAHSA's system.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) had some record of employment between 1995 and 2018.

A LONG RESUME DOESN'T GUARD AGAINST HOMELESSNESS

Flora Lyles found work through the nonprofit Chrysalis after falling into homelessness, Feb. 26, 2020. (David Wagner/KPCC)

Flora Lyles, 49, was still employed when she began sliding into homelessness. She figured that because she was working, and wasn't lazy, she'd be OK.

But she quickly found out, "If you don't happen to have something saved up decently for a rainy day, you're in trouble," she said.

About two years ago, Lyles was working at a facility preparing airline meals when she had to move out of the unit she was renting in Compton because the building had been sold.

Finding an affordable place on top of her busy work schedule felt impossible. She worried about joining the growing number of people in her neighborhood living on the streets.

"It was scary not knowing," Lyles said. "I'm working. I should know where I'm going."

Lyles got her first job at 17, working at a Mrs. Fields cookie shop. For a long time, she had no trouble finding various food service, retail and office jobs.

But by her 40s, she noticed employers were less likely to hire her. Or they would offer her part-time jobs that didn't pay enough to make ends meet in L.A.

"Part-time jobs don't take care of the things that need to be taken care of," Lyles said. "Even if you're holding down two part-time jobs, you're still stretching it."

After losing her housing, Lyles briefly moved into her daughter's studio apartment. She stopped working to look after her granddaughter. But that situation wasn't sustainable.

She then moved into the downtown Union Rescue Mission, where she's been living for more than a year and a half. She's also been getting help with her job search from the nonprofit Chrysalis.

Chrysalis CEO Mark Loranger said his organization's clients have the skills and ambition to work. But L.A.'s high cost of living makes it difficult for them to stay housed — and that makes it hard to stay employed.

"It's just one disruption — either a loss of a job, a car repair payment or a medical situation — that causes them to lose their housing," Loranger said. "You can't hold a home without a job. And in some cases, it's very difficult to hold a job without a home."

WORKERS WHO BECOME HOMELESS EARN VERY LITTLE

Working before falling into homelessness is common in L.A. But the new California Policy Lab study finds these workers are earning very low incomes. On average, they bring in only $9,970 per year — or 16% of L.A.'s median income.

Close to two-thirds of those experiencing homelessness had worked in a few select industries, including administrative work, waste management, health care, food services and retail.

The study also found that employment rates for many groups go up after people get connected with homeless services. That's especially true for people like Lyles who've been working recently.

Since moving into a shelter, Lyles has earned her GED and other job certificates. Chrysalis helped her get work as a lead housekeeper at a downtown health clinic. She hopes to move into a nearby low-income apartment soon.

To those who blame homelessness on people not wanting to work, Lyles said, "Come walk a mile in my shoes... You'll find out that a lot of these people that are homeless get up at four and five o'clock in the morning to go to work."