Making Progress on Homelessness Requires Support for Our Workforce

People ask me all the time in this tough environment what gives me hope.

I always respond that it’s the people I work with and get to meet when I travel. All across the country, I’ve met homeless service providers and people with lived experience who never give up the hope that we can end homelessness. Even if the work is hard and the hours are long, the tireless efforts of frontline staff give me hope every single day.

These very providers continue to do their work even in times of extreme stress, like we’ve seen these past few years. As humans we experience a “fight or flight” response when faced with a scary moment or a crisis. But when someone is constantly in fight or flight mode and experiencing long-term, chronic stress, their body can’t recover.

When we think about the effects of this type of toxic stress, we rightly think first about people experiencing homelessness. It adversely impacts their health and ability to function in myriad ways – creating challenges and barriers that people who are housed don’t experience.

But I would argue that these same effects apply to our system and to our most important asset: our workforce.

What we’re experiencing right now in the homelessness field is like that same chronic stress, but on a system-wide level. Anyone who has worked in any type of homeless setting can tell you that. There are never enough funds, nor physical resources. There is never enough housing, or vouchers, or often shelter beds. But, critically, there is not enough staff – and specifically, not enough funding to pay staff to do their jobs.

A Workforce Under Duress

Over the past year and a half at the Alliance, we have visited communities across the country to learn from providers and people with lived experience about what their homeless systems are like, and what needs to change.

One theme that was present in nearly every community? The homeless services workforce is in trouble. But we have the hope that this can change.

Front line staff didn’t go home during the pandemic: they operated programs in sometimes dangerous and often highly stressful conditions. Providers are burnt out, underpaid, and understaffed. High turnover results in increased stress, and consequent overwork – which then leads again to high turnover. And all of this adversely impacts people seeking help from our systems and programs.

Across the country, we’ve heard it loud and clear from homeless service providers:

  • “I don’t think people understand what we do.”
  • “I don’t think people understand how hard this work is.”
  • “I wish decision makers knew what this job entails.”

There is never time to stop, take a breath, and assess. And if you’re constantly in fight or flight mode, determining which fire to put out next, there is little opportunity to be strategic. But building a strong strategy is key to ending homelessness.

A System-Wide Impact

The Alliance is shedding light on the homeless services workforce for two main reasons:

  • One, the people in our workforce do hard work. Homeless services staff are professional, essential workers, and they are not being compensated accordingly or at a rate that makes even modest housing affordable.
  • Two, until the homeless services field has a staff that is fully funded and supported, we will have a hard time reaching our goals. In other words, we cannot solve homelessness until we have a stable and well-equipped workforce to help us do it.

In a new report from the Alliance’s Homelessness Research Institute, it’s abundantly clear just how much our sector’s workforce is struggling. Three out of four survey respondents said that their program was understaffed, and therefore cannot serve everyone who needs help. Nearly one third of respondents have taken on a second job just to make ends meet, and 37 percent of respondents were thinking about leaving the sector because of these challenges.

Most people who took our survey said that they are motivated by a desire to do meaningful work, a sense of calling, or opportunities to build strong relationships. But motivation alone doesn’t pay the bills.

The majority of homeless service workers cannot save for emergencies and cannot pay for anything other than essentials. Of the more than 5,000 staff surveyed, more than half said that they make under $50,000 per year. Roughly one third said that they could not meet their basic needs, or that they rely on credit cards to pay bills. But despite these financial difficulties, the vast majority of homeless service providers choose to do this work because it matters.

Providers Deserve Fair Compensation

In a visit to Los Angeles last year, I was walking in Skid Row with an outreach worker. She reminded me of the deep love and care that goes into outreach work every single day, and how tirelessly providers work to get people off the streets.

On our walk, we revived someone with Narcan, slouched in a doorway. It shook me; but for her, it was another day at work. She wasn’t immune to the trauma around her, but had developed ways to deal with it.

How do we compensate people for that – for dealing with the most heart-wrenching situations in their everyday work but still showing up day after day with love for the people they serve?

How do you put a dollar amount to the trauma that happens when there aren’t enough resources to meet even the most basic needs of people you serve?

How can you compensate for this secondhand trauma that happens, over and over and over again?

I am not sure I know the answer to those questions, but here’s what I do know:

  • I know that our workforce deserves to be well-equipped and properly compensated to do the hard work of ending homelessness.
  • I know that people experiencing homelessness deserve to have a workforce that is positioned to successfully do their jobs, so they don’t have to learn a new case manager or outreach worker every few weeks.
  • And I know that people experiencing homelessness deserve to have the hope that one day they will be housed.

I have seen the hope that drives this work every day, in communities big and small – even when hope is hard to hold on to. It comes from homeless service providers themselves, demonstrating that people deserve the safety and dignity of a home – and are willing to make sacrifices to make that happen. But they shouldn’t have to make these sacrifices or risk homelessness themselves in order to do this work. Our hope in getting this problem solved is our people – and we need to invest in that hope.

The impact of a homeless services workforce on the brink is bigger than one community, city, or state. Homeless service providers are central to solving homelessness – but right now, they’re hitting a breaking point. The Alliance is continuing its ongoing work to advocate for resources and funding that would equip the homeless services workforce to do their jobs. Without these critical workers – and the hope that they bring – we will not be able to end homelessness and give people the homes they deserve.

Ending homelessness can happen – but only if we sustain the workforce behind it.