Homeless In The Workplace, It Happens.

Homeless in the workplace

Homeless In The Workplace, It Happens.

I once worked with the poster child of an Administrative Assistant. He was always energetic, very prompt, a PowerPoint whiz and a master of streamlining processes. A college-educated young man who never seemed to have a bad day. Even though he was homeless.

Several clues led to this revelation. His clothing was always a bit crumpled, but never inappropriate. His grooming was not polished but never offensive. He always consumed more than his share of office snacks, and always took leftovers.  I was acutely aware that he had a story but nothing in his appearance or behavior was an outright policy or HR violation.

Leaving work late one night, I spotted him behind a nearby establishment with what appeared to be a substantially loaded car, which I later found out was his temporary home.  As I approached him, I called his name.  Startled, he turned to face me. I have never seen anyone look so demoralized or mortified. By the contents of the car, I was able to deduce he was homeless.

Ignoring the obvious, I asked him to go with me while I did some shopping at a nearby specialty grocery store. Truthfully, my intent was to seize the opportunity to help in any way that I could, not get groceries for myself. As we strolled with a cart, like two gentlemen shopping, I told him to pick up whatever he needed, my treat; and I joked with him that it was in lieu of the Christmas bonus he had not received the year earlier. During our excursion, he laid out for me his path to becoming homeless, which had begun and ended with a landlord who did not disclose that his residence was in foreclosure until the day of the eviction; tragic but completely plausible.

With groceries in hand, we parted and agreed for the next day to hole-up in a conference room to research what resources were available to get him to a better place, literally.

Becoming Homeless: Contributing Wage and Income Factors

Contrary to popular belief, the majority of minimum and low wage earners are in fact working adults.  Declining and stagnant wages have put housing options out of reach for many employees particularly those that live and work in cities or regions where the cost of living and inflation are outpacing annual merit and cost of living increases. A recent study cited by Melinda Giovengo PhD, Chief Executive Officer at YouthCare in Seattle Washington, revealed that every $100 increase in rent directly correlates to a 15% increase in homelessness in the Seattle Metropolitan area, where rents rose by more than 3.4% in February 2017 alone.

Following the recession even as the economy improved, annual pay adjustments remained 1%-2% ahead of inflation for a given year. Employees have a minimal expectation of a cost of living adjustment. phenomenal employees on average receive a 5% raise, only slightly more than their average colleagues, who in 2016 received an average of a 3.1%-percent increase which though appreciated, may not be enough the make a significant enough economic impact.

So, is it possible that a moderately compensated Admin, living paycheck to paycheck, with no support system and living in one of America’s costliest cities with no savings might easily end up couch surfing, or worse? Absolutely!

Resources to Consider

  • Create an employee fund. If your organization is fortunate enough to be operating in the black, consider giving back to you employee community. Establish a fund whereby employees in need can qualify for a maximum limit of financial help provided they meet established criteria.
  • Establish a payroll advance program to receive a maximum number of payroll advances to help ease the burden of unforeseen emergencies.
  • Partner with a comprehensive Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Traditionally, EAPs have been viewed as a resource for employee with problems such as alcoholism, depression or marital conflict. Today’s full-service EAPs, however, have an expanded role that includes services to discuss personal concerns including work and life transitions, legal and financial counseling, etc.
  • Engage with your employees regularly and be observant. If you suspect there are personal or professional issues impeding their performance. Know how to discuss the concerns respectfully and legally.

Most importantly, lead your employees without judgment, keep the lines of communication open so that they feel comfortable sharing personal and work-related concerns that impact their ability to give 100%. While you are not expected to be a Social Worker, compassion and empathy as a leader are not optional virtues, they are required; your ability to engage and connect will make all the difference to an employee in need and ultimately your bottom line.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not of The HR Gazette or its team members.

Author: William J. Wiggins

William is a Human Resources Leader out of Seattle who prides himself on providing sound direction and building collaborative relationships with leaders around Employee Engagement. His professional passion is helping partners manage their human assets with respect all things HR, including Employee Benefits, Onboarding, Diversity and Inclusion, and Employee Engagement, and EEO compliance. William has held positions in Health & Welfare Sales and Consulting, Employee Benefits and Human Resources serving healthcare, consulting, and retail organizations to include Mercer Human Resources Consulting, Williams-Sonoma, Inc., Kaiser Permanente, and Blue Cross Blue Shield. “I believe that “a true Human Resources leader is like a wizard that works feverishly behind the curtain pulling all the necessary levers to make sure that our human capital and organizations remain protected, compliant, and progressive”.

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