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It means there’s fewer people to help the unhoused, exacerbating the homelessness crisis, a new report says. It estimates that $4.8 billion is needed to adequately pay current workers.
In a sad irony, the lack of affordable housing is putting pressure on both unhoused individuals and the workers trying to help them.
Amid skyrocketing housing costs and stagnant pay, many homeless services workers are struggling to stay in the field. And if they leave, observers warn, it could exacerbate the homelessness crisis.
“The same crisis that is impacting the people who end up needing services from our systems is impacting the workers in those systems,” said Joy Moses, vice president of research for the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
In a new report released last week, the group found that the homeless workforce sector faces a deficit of at least $4.8 billion to adequately pay current workers. Unless that shortfall is addressed, the report says, employees will continue to leave the field and it will become more difficult for agencies to administer homelessness programs. A permanent housing employee—or worker responsible for connecting clients with housing services—earns an average of $42,912 per year. For emergency shelter employees who are responsible for tasks associated with shelter operations, the average pay is just $27,830, according to the report. Those workers would need a 15% and 77% raise, respectively, to afford the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment in the U.S.
In addition to exacerbating the homelessness crisis, high staff turnover can also diminish trust in government among people experiencing homelessness, Moses said. The most effective way to help someone experiencing homelessness is to assign them to a caseworker who works with the client to build a relationship and address their specific needs. But with high turnover, a client may work with several caseworkers over time, starting over each time.
“It's very disruptive, and it's very difficult to build trust with people as … employees are constantly changing,” Moses said.
The low-pay is affecting the homeless workforce in cities nationwide, according to Moses.
In Multnomah County, Oregon, for instance, 31% of homeless services workers said their salaries are insufficient to cover basic needs, according to an August report. More than half said they were somewhat or very likely to look for a new job in the next year, and of those, 86% said they would stay in their current role for better pay. Seventy-six percent said they would leave for a job with better pay.
“We have assumed that they can live off minimum earnings, but the cost of living, specifically food and housing, has been skyrocketing,” Moses said. “It is not realistic to think that they can survive, and that is being reflected by the stories that we're hearing about turnover.”
The National Alliance to End Homelessness report urges the federal government to take the lead by making greater investments in staffing for the sector. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Housing Assistance Grants program is one of the primary funding sources for homeless services employees’ salaries. To ensure those workers are adequately compensated, the report says that funding pool would need a $241 million boost.
There are steps state and local governments can take too, Moses said.
When agency officials contract with nonprofits and others that provide homeless services in their communities, they should ensure they’re working with organizations that compensate workers fairly.
Providing stable and predictable funding to homeless services organizations can also help address the workforce challenges, Moses said. When state and local governments contract with homeless services organizations, it’s typically for only for a year or two.
“It's difficult for [organizations] to plan and to hire people when they don't know if next year they're going to have resources again,” she said.
But ultimately, unless communities pay their homeless service workers a living wage, it’s going to be difficult—if not impossible—to ensure all residents have access to safe and stable shelter.
“Cities and states across the country need an adequate workforce to scale up housing and services to meet the needs of their communities and to ultimately end homelessness,” the report said.