Homeless Service Workers Need Significant Pay Raises to Afford Housing

Social workers, homeless service workers

Workers in the homeless services sector need significant pay increases in order to afford housing for themselves and provide proper care for people experiencing homelessness, according to a new report.

Overall, the National Alliance to End Homelessness estimates that it could cost as much as $4.8 billion to give permanent supportive housing staff the pay increases that they need to afford housing.

To afford housing, NAEH estimates that homeless services employees need to earn close to $50,000 to afford housing. As of early September, the report estimates that PSH staff make about $42,900 on average, while shelter employees earn close to $28,000.

That equates to a raise of about 15% for PSH employees and a 77% pay increase for homeless shelter employees.

The report suggested that those pay increases could cost more than $4.8 billion, which could be covered by increasing funding for a couple of grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. However, it remains to be seen whether the funding will ever materialize.

“People experiencing homelessness, and the systems that endeavor to support them, suffer when workers are not adequately paid,” the report concluded. “Staff interactions have meaningful impacts on people’s engagement with services and what their path to housing ultimately looks like.”

Pay disparities in the homeless services sector have been ongoing for decades.

A 2021 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that the average annual salary of all permanent and temporary supportive housing employees is around $30,000. This means that many of the people who serve homeless folks are often living on the fringes between poverty and homelessness themselves.

At the same time, service provider salaries have not kept up with the cost of living, which has led to many workers worrying about experiencing homelessness themselves.

For comparison, the National Low Income Housing Coalition’s 2023 Out Of Reach report found that people need to earn at least $23.67 to afford to rent a one-bedroom home. At that level, an employee needs to earn about $50,000 to avoid being housing-burdened, which is defined as paying more than 30% of a person’s monthly income on rent and utilities.

“Stable, affordable homes are a prerequisite for basic well-being, and no person should face the danger of losing their home,” NLIHC CEO Diane Yentel said. Yet too many low-income renters are facing worsening housing instability as housing costs rise and pandemic-era safety net programs expire.

One way to get homeless service workers the pay they deserve could be to increase the staffing component of HUD’s Homeless Assistance Grants, a common funding mechanism for service organizations, according to NAEH.

The report estimated HAG funding should be increased by a total of $241 million. That includes a $97 million increase for Continuums of Care and another $144 million for Emergency Solutions Grants, which cover the cost of operating homeless shelters.

President Joe Biden’s 2024 budget requested more than $3.7 billion in funding for HAGs, representing a 3% year-over-year increase. The Senate Transportation-Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill also included $25 million to increase staff pay. However, NAEH says that funding is “not enough.”

“While significant, it is worth noting that these homeless assistance grant increases represent only the tip of the iceberg,” according to the report. “Thousands more people work in this sector besides staff currently paid through HUD grants, their salaries funded by philanthropic donations and other federal, state, and local dollars.”

Failing to increase homeless service staff pay could be disastrous for communities that are grappling with large spikes of homelessness, like Los Angeles, Denver, and New York, NAEH said in the report. For example, low pay can increase staff turnover and reduce the number of lived-experience experts working in the sector overall.

“On a system level, insufficient staffing can challenge communities’ ability to administer programs and spend down federal homelessness assistance resources,” the report said. 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.”

How You Can Help

The pandemic proved that we need to rethink addressing homelessness in the U.S. It also showed that aid programs work when agencies and service organizations have sufficient funds and clear guidance on spending.

Contact your officials and representatives. Tell them you support keeping many of the pandemic-related aid programs in place for future use. They have proven effective at keeping people housed, which is the first step to ending homelessness.

Robert Davis

Robert Davis

Robert is a freelance journalist based in Colorado who covers housing, police, and local government.

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