- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

When Eric Sheptock hitchhiked from Gainesville, Fla., to Washington, he already had been homeless and unemployed. That was in the summer of 2005.

Mr. Sheptock is still homeless, but he is not unemployed.

After working a few odd jobs since coming to the District, Mr. Sheptock started a janitorial job, which he got with the help of a friend. The part-time job that he began in April pays $8.25 an hour.

“It’s good to have some money in my pocket,” Mr. Sheptock said. “I can buy my own meals every so often or get on the bus rather than doing so much walking.”

But Mr. Sheptock, 40, still lives in a homeless shelter, the Community of Creative Non-Violence (CCNV), located in the heart of Washington, just a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. And he is not alone.

According to estimates from the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness’ (CCPH) 2009 report released this spring, 24 percent of single homeless people are employed. Their meager incomes, however, do not pay enough for them to afford an apartment in Washington, where, as of April, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment was $1,400.

“It’s not going to pay enough money for me to get out of homelessness,” Mr. Sheptock said.

Survival is the more pressing issue. Many homeless people live with nothing but the clothes on their backs, on one simple meal a day and seldom with the comfort of a bed. There are many who work low-paying jobs but do not make much progress.

The job is “not going to pay enough money for me to get out of homelessness,” Mr. Sheptock said.

Mr. Sheptock is just one of the lucky. Without a place to sleep and shower and without clean clothes and transportation, an unemployed homeless person finds it tough to get a job, said Steve Thomas, director of community outreach for STREATS (Striving to Reach, Educate and Transform Self), an advocacy group that works to end homelessness in the nation’s capital.

“The homeless population is in such need” of basic necessities, Mr. Thomas said in May at a STREATS-sponsored job-training information fair for unemployed homeless people, which was held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Northwest. “When a person has none of these things, it’s hard to get or maintain a job.”

Other obstacles that keep the homeless unemployed are their lack of job skills and training. A few months prior to the job training information fair, STREATS sponsored a job fair for the homeless, Mr. Thomas said, but the participants lacked the necessary basic skills to fill the positions that were available.

That’s when Mr. Thomas came up with the idea to sponsor a job training information fair, at which vendors offered training in cosmetology, computers, automotive repair, truck driving, “green” jobs and literacy.

“This is the perfect time for training,” Mr. Thomas said, “because we do expect an upturn in the economy.

“We figured it’s best to put our efforts toward letting the homeless know about the training opportunities that are available to them.”

Then there are the unemployed homeless people with substance abuse or psychiatric problems, which hinder their ability to find work. Mr. Thomas urges job seekers to get help before looking for a job.

“If you have a drug or alcohol problem, you are going to have to get it fixed,” Mr. Thomas said, “because ain’t nobody got time to deal with you.”

“There is a drug program around every corner. If you need to get in a program, I’ll get you in a program,” he said.

The CPPH report counted 6,228 people as homeless in Washington and said 1,645 of them had chronic substance abuse and 1,042 had severe mental illness.

Mr. Sheptock - an Atlantic City, N.J., native - said it has been almost four years since he last used crack cocaine, which he smoked from 1998 to 2005. His first night in Washington, where he stayed Logan Circle park, was his last night using crack.

“I ran out of money on the morning of August 1, 2005, and I haven’t used since then,” said Mr. Sheptock, who has been homeless off and on since 1994, when he walked off his job as freight handler after a dispute with his supervisor.

Now, when he is not working, he does homeless advocacy. That’s the reason he took the janitorial job.

“The job is to pay for my cell phone and other minor expenses such as bus fare, so I can do my homeless advocacy better.

“This part-time job won’t pay for an apartment,” Mr. Sheptock said. “I’m pretty sure.”

Joseph Young is a freelance writer and photographer living in the District.

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