You’ve seen the talk that this winter will be difficult; shorter days and colder temperatures portend higher rates of COVID-19 and little outdoor exercise. For frontline homeless service providers, staff are challenged to manage trauma from their own lives while navigating second-hand trauma from the people they serve. But even during these difficult times, there is a lot that leadership can do to stave off employee burnout—and it doesn’t take a big budget to do it.
In December 2020, I spoke to three providers across the U.S. about the creative ways they support and recognize their staff.
Ross Altenbaugh is Executive Director of Flagstaff Shelter Services, Inc. in Flagstaff, Arizona. Altenbaugh usually manages a 24-hour shelter with connection to medical services, but in response to the COVID pandemic Flagstaff Shelter Services has since opened two hotel stay programs.
Erica Holmes is the Director of Housing Resource Center for St. Joseph’s Villa in Petersburg, Virginia. With a dozen staff and two interns, the Housing Resource Center serves as the access point for the tri-city area within the Virginia Balance of State as well as providing rapid re-housing, homelessness prevention, and other key services.
Stacey Warner is Coordinated Entry System Manager at the Metro Area Continuum of Care for the Homeless (MACCH). MACCH serves Omaha, Nebraska as the Continuum of Care lead agency with only four full time staff, but since March they have brought on fifteen temporary contract staff members to ramp up housing stabilization and re–housing efforts.
These providers have developed an impressive set of approaches to support their staff. Some of the top take-aways are below:
Mental Health and Self Care
- Be flexible! All of the providers reinforced the need to be flexible with staff. Giving staff the option to adjust their schedules of granting them paid time off that doesn’t count towards vacation or sick time can make a difference. As Warner told me, “We have to stay aware of where people are emotionally and let them take the time off that they need, but we also need to remember that people can’t always afford to do that. Anything leadership can do to make their lives easier, we should do.”
- Encourage Outdoor Time. At the Housing Resource Center, Holmes challenged her staff with a Virtual Mile Challenge. Coworkers keep friendly competition by sharing the number of miles covered during outdoor exercise with family and friends.
Recognizing Efforts and Successes
- Team Shout Outs. During full team meetings at the Housing Resource Center, Holmes’s staff give shout-outs to coworkers for lending helping hands and celebrate individual successes.
- Public Recognition. Altenbaugh teamed up with her local United Way to make “Thank You to Our Service Providers” banners in recognition of the shelter staff. These banners were displayed across Flagstaff to bring public awareness to the hard work of the frontline staff.
Additional Financial Support or Compensation
- Keep Them Stocked. For staff working remotely, office supplies can get expensive. Warner is helping her staff by establishing office supply drop-by hours at the library parking lot. She loads her trunk with requested supplies and staff can come by for a socially distanced pick-up.
- Higher Wages for the Risk. Altenbaugh worked with county officials to bridge the gap in funds to give hazard pay to staff working in the hotel stay program for clients with COVID. These staff members also have the option of staying in a hotel room of their own (at no cost to them) during their week-long shifts to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus to anyone at home.
Safe Space to Voice Concerns
- Personal Check-ins. All three providers agreed: it’s important to make the time for one-on-one check-ins with staff members. As Altenbaugh said, “It’s about listening to people and what they need. It’s about—I hate to be cheesy—but what people’s love language is.”
- Review Internal Policy. Recognizing that staff had to change the way they function, Holmes reviewed and identified internal policies that weren’t supporting the staff’s efforts. “I’m looking at what I can make more flexible and what’s the least amount of stress our case managers have to deal with so they can keep doing their jobs,” she said. Holmes added that through this process she was able to voice her staff’s suggestions straight to upper management.
Supporting Staff Beyond the Workday
- Support Futures. Because all her new staff are on time-limited contracts, Warner has offered employment and networking support for her team. Contracted staff have access to resume support and job postings, and Warner regularly has conversations to ask, “What do you want to do next?” and, “Are there ways I can support you or people I can connect you to?”
- Incentivize Testing. Altenbaugh has incentivized her staff to get tested regularly by having a local restaurant bring food whenever the shelter has a round of COVID testing.
It Doesn’t Take Much
Altenbaugh emphasized that most of she’s done has been without any additional funding. “We’re part of the Balance of State and a border town, so we have really specific high numbers. We’re not especially resource rich. I really do believe that other agencies can do this too if they want.”
These simple acts of leadership were done without big infusions of cash and often didn’t require any additional resources. But likely due in large part to the care they have shown to their staff, each of the three I spoke to revealed that they hadn’t lost a single staff member since COVID began—and in fact they each praised their staff for doing much more than just show up.
“With everything they had to get through,” Holmes said of her staff, “everyone is still doing their best work. They never gave up.”
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