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Understanding the Origins of Homelessness, including the 'Pink Slip'

When you see a person who is homeless on the street, it is not uncommon to think, "Why are they homeless?" and, in the process, answer yourself with a stereotype. The reality is, 75% of homelessness is the result of a:

loss of job,

workplace injury,

change in family status (i.e. a death or divorce),

health issues,

or a combination, thereof.

One adversity often leads to another. Someone receives a pink slip. Losing their job takes a toll on their marriage. (Did You Know: The average Canadian is 2 paycheques away from bankruptcy.) They separate or divorce and, in the process, they lose their home. Then, maybe they turn to alcohol or drugs to deal with the stress of it all. Maybe.

But many people see a person who is homeless and immediately think of a stereotype. Even worse, they make their feelings known to the homeless person without ever understanding how the spiral downward got started.

What homeless people go through, you would never wish on anyone. Most people don't know this because they don't know someone who is homeless. (Ask a volunteer. They have a new perspective.)

Dan, a client of Haven Toronto, was happily married with two kids. Sadly, his wife passed away. That was the starting point. In his late 40's, for the first time ever, he found himself homeless.

Another client, Mike, volunteers running the library at Haven Toronto. When he was in his late 50's, Mike was replaced by technology. A pink slip turned things dark and grey in Mike's life. Mike may never work again. But Haven Toronto has given Mike hope and volunteering in the library has given Mike a sense of purpose.

While you don't hear the term 'pink slip' used much these days, it is still feared, none the less.

Peter Liebhold is a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and Chair of the Division of Work and Industry. The history of business culture is his business. The pink slip is a mystery he's been chasing for a long time.

Almost everyone is familiar with the phrase, but no one seems to know where it originated.

The usual line of reasoning is that the phrase was born when one or more companies started the practice of terminating employees by giving them notice on a piece of pink paper. The colour was chosen so that the notice would stand out from the rest of the paperwork on the poor guy's desk and he wouldn't miss it.

The catch, of course, is that Liebhold and other historians haven't been able to track down an actual slip, or find any companies that actually fired people like this.

The most promising lead Liebhold ever had was the Ford Motor Company. While poring over an obscure history journal, he found a footnote that led him to an article in another journal that talked about the daily evaluations of Ford's assembly line workers. The workers, the article went, all had lockers or cubbies where they kept their things, and at the end of the day they would find a slip of paper from management there. A white paper meant the day's effort was acceptable. A pink slip, though, meant that they weren't wanted back in the morning.

Liebhold thought he'd finally found his elusive slip, but when he tracked down the source of the story, a California-based management consultant, he learned it was just an anecdote overheard in college. The consultant had been repeating it ever since. Neither the consultant, nor anyone at Ford who Liebhold talked to, had any evidence that the story was true.

Liebhold's search hasn't been in vain, though. He's found a few other bits of workplace history during the hunt, like the first American filing cabinet and some red twill that secretaries used to use to bundle documents together — apparently, the inspiration for bureaucratic "red tape."

Based on an article by Matt Soniak, Mental Floss




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