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Although a surprisingly large number of homeless people work, most can't live on their earnings

People who are homeless have several potential sources of income to support themselves: employment, government programs, panhandling, and illegal activities. A new study shows that a surprisingly large number of homeless people in California worked during the early 1990s, but few were able to generate significant earnings from employment alone.

The 14 percent of the homeless who worked the most earned a median monthly income of $600, the 34 percent who worked fewer hours earned a median monthly income of $169, and 52 percent did not work at all. Physical health problems that limited work or daily activities were a particular barrier to employment. Those with drug and alcohol abuse problems (72 percent of the homeless vs. 27 percent of the general population) worked fewer hours.

While 69 percent of the homeless group were eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), only 14 percent of those who were eligible participated. Take-up rates were much higher (29 percent) for those with physical limitations than for those with a major mental disorder and no physical disability (5 percent) and those with only a severe substance use disorder (5 percent). About 10 percent of the sample received Aid to Families with Dependent Children for an average of $628 per month, and another 10 percent received SSI or SSDI benefits for $618 per month. About 40 percent of homeless adults received benefits from General Assistance, a public program of last resort, with a mean monthly cash benefit of only $322.

Clearly, more research is needed to find ways to improve access of eligible homeless people to income support programs, conclude Samuel H. Zuvekas, Ph.D., and Steven C. Hill, Ph.D., of the Center for Cost and Financing Studies, Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. They used a random sample of 471 homeless people from a survey conducted in Alameda County, CA, initially and 6 months later during 1991 to 1993.

More details are in "Income and employment among homeless people: The role of mental health, health and substance abuse," by Drs. Zuvekas and Hill, in the Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics 3, pp. 153-163, 2000.

Reprints (AHRQ Publication No. 01-R069) are available from the AHRQ Publications Clearinghouse.

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