AUSTIN, Texas — With few reporting income above minimum wage, Austin individuals engaging in roadside solicitation are using it as a survival strategy, but most desire to return to more regular employment, according to preliminary results of a University of Texas at Austin study.
People who are soliciting on public roadways are usually experiencing multiple barriers to work, including health and mental health problems, recent losses of home, family member, lack of identification and difficulties with transportation, food and other basic necessities for work, said Dr. Laura Lein of the School of Social Work and Department of Anthropology.
The research project, which began last spring, was funded by the city of Austin and co-sponsored by the Austin Police Department. Lein has presented a preliminary report to the City of Austin Public Health & Human Services Subcommittee.
The study included interviews with 103 local solicitors. The average solicitor in the study was white, more than 40 years old and male. He did not actively participate in a larger extended family or social network. He was either homeless or had faced episodes of homelessness. He was most likely to have spent the night preceding the interview outdoors and had lived in Austin for a year or longer.
Thirty-five percent of the respondents were either high school graduates or General Equivalency Diploma holders and an additional 33 percent reported either some college education or were college graduates. The majority of study participants (91 percent) were single, widowed, divorced or separated. About 30 percent had served in the U.S. military, and 23 percent of the respondents had experienced homelessness before the age of 18.
"While there were no overwhelmingly similar elements to the early backgrounds of participants, life histories included foster care, military service, serious accidents, early experiences of homelessness and persistent mental and physical health problems," Lein said.
Although it was difficult to obtain employment, the soliciting population did not, in general, appear to engage in roadside solicitation for years-long periods, according to the research. On average, respondents had engaged in solicitation for about five months. They also had usually lived in Austin for a number of years.
Most solicitors made a persistent effort to work and, in fact, had a strong history of working. They reported efforts to obtain jobs, including the use of temporary agencies, day labor services and applications for work. Most solicitors had worked for pay in the 12 months preceding the interview, but often at insecure jobs. Health and mental health issues were the most common reason solicitors could not work, particularly at jobs they had held earlier in their lives.
A small minority expressed a preference for the lifestyle presented by solicitation.
Solicitors also faced a range of other barriers to employment. Those interviewed had often lost all personal identification materials and had difficulty obtaining new forms of identification. Many solicitors reported they were unable to acquire new identification while they had outstanding warrants with a law enforcement system. Solicitors with arrest records found employers were often unwilling to consider them.
"Solicitation accompanied, as it often is, by episodes of homelessness, creates further barriers to employment," said Lein. "Without a stable address and telephone, employers have little way to reach solicitors for interviews. Without access to showers, laundries and other personal care facilities, they have difficulty presenting themselves as likely employees."
Respondents expressed a dislike for some housing and health services, finding them difficult and unpleasant to use. They cited drug use that occurred in shelters, a dangerous environment, shortage of beds and a strict regimen.
A large team of researchers from the university worked on the study, including graduate and undergraduate students. Faculty and staff from the Center for Social Work Research working on the project included Julie Beausoleil, Beth Bruinsma, Lindsay Frenkel and Reetu Naik. The project was assisted by Holly Bell, School of Social Work, and Patrick Wong, the LBJ School of Public Affairs.