Communication Currents

Man in front of building that says Employment Access Center

Community-Based Research About Homelessness Reveals the Barriers that Homeless Young Adults Face

September 9, 2021
Critical and Cultural Studies

Every year in the United States, about 3.5 million people between the ages of 18 and 25 experience some form of homelessness. Many young adults also search for jobs while unsheltered. In a new article published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research, Timothy P. Huffman, Casey Leier, Mark A. Generous, Margaret M. Hinrichs, and Luke Brenneman examine the issues that homeless young adults face and how they navigate obstacles to employment.

Homelessness and Employment 

People who struggle to find stable employment with consistent pay will also likely struggle with homelessness. Unfortunately, this can make it difficult to find stable work. Homelessness can pose a barrier to employment because of difficulties getting ready for work, such as not having a place to eat, sleep, bathe, or get dressed. Lack of consistent work can lead some people to engage in illicit work. Thus, it is important that community organizations address these issues and help youth struggling with homelessness to find consistent work.  

Community-Based Research

For their research, Huffman, Leier, Generous, Hinrichs, and Brenneman partnered with StandUp For Kids (SUFK), a community-based non-profit organization that helps homeless youth throughout the United States. The goal of the research was to both understand the hurdles that homeless young adults face and provide SUFK with information that would help the organization tailor its professional development services to clients’ needs. The authors conducted interviews with 21 currently or recently homeless young adults. The interviews revealed that homeless youths face four primary barriers to employment: domestic barriers, health barriers, bureaucratic barriers, and social support barriers. 

Barriers to Employment 

Domestic Barriers 

Homeless young adults face a variety of domestic barriers to employment, including lack of cooking spaces, unstable sleeping conditions, difficulty maintaining hygiene, and issues with transportation. Many of the interviewees reported issues with inadequate sleeping spaces, such as being woken up by police officers in the middle of the night or sleeping outside of one’s workplace to avoid being late. Hygiene was also a frequent problem. Some young adults had access to showers at shelters, but others lacked access to both showering facilities and a space to keep their clothing, which made it difficult to dress appropriately for work. Finally, lack of access to consistent transportation and charged cell phones also posed barriers to maintaining or gaining employment. 

Health Barriers

Many homeless individuals lack access to health care and mental health care, which can result in loss of employment. For example, some young adults described being fired because of health conditions that made it impossible to work, such as pneumonia. Other individuals struggled with addiction, and one individual reported being discriminated against in hiring because of dental issues. Finally, one person was fired because of a pregnancy: “[I] didn’t know I was pregnant, and [I] threw up on the cash register. Then I got fired.” 

Bureaucratic Barriers 

Bureaucratic barriers to employment may include not knowing how to develop a résumé, lack of education, and lack of identification. Many of the participants lacked access to government identification. Some had their identification thrown out or stolen. Others expressed frustration with the long process required to get a social security card or a birth certificate. Some faced immigration issues that posed a challenge to getting proper identification. In addition, some participants had criminal records from a young age that made it difficult to find employment. Others also struggled to avoid legal issues because of antiloitering and trespassing laws that criminalize homelessness. All of these hurdles made it difficult to gain consistent employment that wasn’t cash-based.

Social Support Barriers

Many of the young adults also reported a lack of social support, including a lack of peer support. While shelters can offer services, some young adults felt that they were not suitable places to stay because of their “strict schedule, negative environment, and safety risks,” according to the authors. Others reported that homeless friends would ask their employed friends for money. While some young adults were okay with offering support to friends, others felt that the requests were not respectful. 

Tactics for Working and Living 

Huffman, Leier, Generous, Hinrichs, and Brenneman also examined the coping mechanisms that homeless young adults used. These tactics included communicating intentionally, use of organizational resources, connecting work to aspirations, maintaining motivation, and seeking entrepreneurial opportunities. 

Communicating Intentionally 

The young adults described a variety of communication tactics that they used when seeking employment. These tactics included being personable and friendly with interviewers and finding appropriate clothing for the interview. For example, while many of them did not have access to business casual clothes, one participant described wearing a polo shirt and slacks to ensure that they looked nice for an interview. 

Organizational Resources 

The young adults also reported using resources from non-profit organizations. While most non-profits did not offer comprehensive services, many study participants reported using multiple non-profits that offered job listings, job training, housing, and other services. The non-profits offered a lifeline to some individuals as resources for finding employment and a source of support for the unemployed. 

Connecting to Aspirations 

An important communication tactic for the young adults was connecting their current work to future aspirations. For example, one participant described their joy at being “an Oompa Loompa working at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory” because they worked in a movie theater and dreamed of being an actor. Others spoke of meaningful connections forged with customers while working in the service industry. 

Maintaining Motivation 

The young adults also spoke of the importance of finding the motivation required to keep applying for jobs. Sometimes, motivation came from seeing others who were content in their work; other times, it came from ignoring loved ones who suggested that finding a job was impossible. 

Seeking Entrepreneurial Opportunities

When the young adults were unable to find employment, they sometimes turned to unregulated and cash-based work—mowing lawns, babysitting, window washing, etc. By finding multiple kinds of jobs, homeless young adults were sometimes able to meet their needs. 


Huffman, Leier, Generous, Hinrichs, and Brenneman suggest that the barriers they uncovered can help other programs identify needs that they are not currently addressing and strategize about the best ways to address those. They also argue that nonprofits can supplement the tactics used by homeless young adults by supporting their efforts.

This essay was translated by Mary Grace Hébert from the scholarly journal article: Timothy P. Huffman, Casey Leier, Mark A. Generous, Margaret M. Hinrichs, and Luke Brenneman (2021): Climbing the ‘scaffolded city’: tactics used by homeless young adults to navigate employment barriers, Journal of Applied Communication Research, DOI: 10.1080/00909882.2020.1839119

About the author (s)

Timothy P. Huffman, Ph.D.

St. Louis University

Associate Professor, Department of Communication

Timothy P. Huffman

Casey Leier, Ph.D.

Health Assessment and Research for Communities
Director of Research and Evaluation

Casey Leier

Mark A. Generous, Ph.D.

California State Polytechnic University Pomona

Assistant Professor, Department of Communication

Mark A. Generous

Margaret M. Hinrichs, Ph.D.

Arizona State University

Assistant Research Professor, School of Complex Adaptive Systems 

Margaret M. Hinrichs

Luke Brenneman, Ph.D.

Arizona State University

Instructor, Hugh Downs School of Human Communication 

Luke Brenneman