Author: Thum Yong Ze Aloysius

The proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for his lifetime.” This has been the conventional wisdom underlying social assistance, which underscores the importance of self-sufficiency in order to achieve long-term goals, rather than social transfers that focuses only in short-term outcomes.

Yet, beneath this story lie three presumptions that are often neglected. Firstly, it is granted that the man has a fishing rod, bait and all necessary equipment to start fishing. Secondly, it presumes that there is a lake or sea near his place that he is able to fish. Lastly, it presumes that the man eats fish and it will feed him sustainably for the rest of his life. These presumptions may seem silly to some, but it reflects a sore reality where many of these important underlying issues are being trivialised. This is evident in the case of employment for the homelessness, where conventional employment goals are often not attainable without significant investment in support services (Schwartz, Meléndez and Gallagher 2004).

Homelessness and Employment

The challenges of the homeless are often cyclical, where it is both a cause and consequence of various social problems. The lack of shelter often results in poor health and sanitation, lack of quality education, job insecurity, debt, lack of safety, familial breakdown and increased vulnerability to social vices. The most proximal cause of poverty and homelessness is unemployment or underemployment. Besides the lack of job experience, skills and readiness, many homeless faces a number of barriers such as mental health, addiction, debt, which further impedes their employability. 

In creating solutions for social problems, one needs to critically examine the fundamental assumptions in the theory of change and nuances of each particular context. Many homeless have weak employment potential – they are either unemployed, working in menial jobs or struggle to hold jobs for a long period of time. Supporting them based on supportive housing or vocational programmes alone is not sufficient and we require a holistic approach to assess and deal with the problem. To break the poverty cycle, it is essential to invest in long-term interventions such as upskilling or long-term vocational training. However, due to the significant poverty tax imposed on the poor and homeless, these investments are demanding and impractical. 

The Unintended Side Effects of Training Programmes

The time that is being invested in attending these programmes means that they will miss out on the time to work and pay for their pressing needs, such as food or bills. This opportunity cost of attending such programmes (even if it helps them in the future) is significantly higher than people that are not in their predicament. This disincentivizes them participate in upskill programmes, resulting in many stagnating in menial low paying jobs and barely making means meet. Rather than solely focusing on finding them jobs, the government and social help groups can invest in monetary incentives to shift the payoff matrix for the homeless, which incentivizes them to take on these programmes without having the worrying need of meeting their daily expenses. Smith (2006) demonstrated that by incentivizing through monetary rewards, it positively reinforces their behaviour towards upskilling training. This led to increased achievement in job-skills training programs, engagement in a job-skill training program and performance quality while on task on job-skills program (Smith 2006). This provides a comprehensive plan as it addresses both short-term poverty through monetary support and long-term poverty in gaining education and skills for employment.

More than providing jobs, it is necessary to provide mentorship, counselling and support to build confidence and their self-esteem to move beyond their psychological barriers (Robinson 2008). Ultimately, a job is more than a means of survival, just as how solving homelessness is more than providing a shelter. It is about having the means to live a dignified life, earning your keep and being self-reliant to secure a sustainable way of life. 


Koffarnus, M. et. al. (2013). “Monetary Incentives to Reinforce Engagement and Achievement in a Job-Skills Training Program for Homeless, Unemployed Adults.” Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis 46: 582-591.

Lee, S. and Oyserman, D. (2009). “Expecting to Work, Fearing Homelessness: The Possible Selves of Low-Income Mothers.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 39(6): 1334-1355.

Robinson, P. (2008). Something to Do: Education, Training and Employment. In Working with Young Homeless People, Chapter 5. 

Schwartz, A., Meléndez, E. & Gallagher, S. (2004). Addressing the Employment Challenge for the Formerly Homeless: Supportive Housing in New York City, In Communities and Workforce Development, Chapter 5. New School University. 

Smith, S. (2006). “Homelessness, Employment Assistance and the Welfare to Work Package.” Parity: Employment Assistance Theory and Practice 19(4).

How Can We Approach Employment for the Homeless?

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