There aren’t enough workers to help people experiencing homelessness
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Three years on from the onset of the pandemic, industries from hotels to health care are still struggling to find workers.
The same is true for the nonprofits and government agencies that provide homelessness services. They say those vacant positions are often a hidden barrier to getting their clients off the street and into stable housing.
Leticia Rosales is covering the front desk at the Hope Cooperatives’ Outreach and Engagement Center in Sacramento, which provides 24/7 services to people experiencing homelessness.
“It’s like a graduation,” Rosales said. “You know what I mean? You see them start from their first step onto the next step.”
Rosales makes about $22 an hour as an outreach worker. She was homeless as a kid, and says this job makes her feel good. But it’s not for everyone.
“It’s a high rate of turnover,” she said. “But I feel like the ones that actually get it, like get the point of working with the people are the ones that stay.”
Finding the ones that stay is as tough as it’s ever been, says Hope Cooperative CEO Erin Johansen. About 10% of her positions are basically always vacant.
“We have a full-time recruiter, she spends all day every day trying to find us the right people,” Johansen said.
There are no good national statistics on the shortage of homelessness workers, but anyone in the field will tell you it’s a problem.
A study focused on Los Angeles County found the workforce needs to grow by 20%.
One particular type of worker has been really hard to get are licensed clinical social workers, according to Johansen. People with master’s degrees in social work are trained to work with people with mental illness or substance abuse issues.
“Right now there’s tremendous competition for social workers, and there are much more lucrative and much more pleasant work settings,” said Donna Gallup, who teaches in the MSW program at Azusa Pacific University.
Those competitors include the likes of schools and hospital systems, which typically offer better hours and less stress.
While Gallup says higher pay for homelessness workers would obviously help, many of her students need more exposure and support.
Gallup helps run a pilot program that places master’s students with Southern California homelessness agencies.
“They’re entering the sector with their eyes open,” she said. “Many people who do go into the sector go in and are very surprised, disenfranchised, are not understanding. Those are some of the reasons people burn out.”
Gallup said the early results of the pilot program are promising. While the official data isn’t out yet, anecdotally it looks like MSWs who participated are sticking with it.
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