Systemic Failures and Poor Funding Undermine Vital Homeless Services

Social Workers and Homeless services

Homeless services suffer from systemic failures and insufficient funding, exacerbating the challenges faced by social workers who endure emotional tolls, leading to burnout and trauma.

The Plight of Social Workers in Homeless Services

I became acutely aware of the inefficiencies within America’s welfare system early on. I regret to admit that initially, I focused solely on societal failures, believing that negative public discourse about welfare demoralized public service workers, thus impairing their ability to serve poor and vulnerable people in our society.

It was wrong of me to assume the issue was only one of poor character. I later realized the issue extended beyond individual attitudes and was deeply rooted in systemic funding shortfalls.

These insights came to me when I was homeless. My social worker at the time openly expressed abhorrent opinions about poor people, describing homeless individuals as lazy and entitled. The blatant disdain of this person, who was supposed to help and support me, was shocking. Still, I also saw the glaring systemic failures limiting his ability to help.

Despite his ignorance and poor character, he was candid about the lack of available resources. There were no programs or housing applications for which I qualified. Simply being homeless wasn’t enough—I wasn’t vulnerable enough, even though I slept in a jail-cell-sized room every night. I needed to be pregnant, addicted, visibly disabled, or elderly. I was none of these things.

At the time, I felt he wasn’t even trying, and perhaps he wasn’t. Yet, over time, I realized that even with dedication and skill, he would have been hamstrung by the same systemic inadequacies. The chronic underfunding of welfare programs meant that no matter his efforts, there was little he could have done to provide meaningful assistance.

The Emotional Toll: Burnout and Trauma in Social Work

Social workers are hugely undervalued, under resourced, and underpaid. So, it makes sense that not only are they often unable to fulfill their crucial role in serving the most vulnerable demographic, but facing the reality that they’re unable to must be heavy on the heart. If it were me, I’d be heartbroken and burnt out.

During the pandemic, we really saw the worst of it. Our health systems became reliant on traveling nurses and staffing agencies. Similar shortages were felt in social services, where social workers who did remain had no choice but to do double the work for the same pay.

Burnout was already an obstacle before the pandemic. However, that same burnout, caused by systemic failings, only accelerated during COVID-19.

Many social workers suffered from staff shortages and, most importantly, losing experienced staff. One of the leading causes is the toll working in social services takes on one’s mental health. This further diminished the ability to meet the needs of homeless people, poor people, and other underserved demographics.

Underfunded and Undervalued: The Crisis in Homeless Services

While social services face many systemic failings, homeless services are by far the most lacking. For instance, Medicaid is known to be underfunded, yet the program will still automatically pay thousands of dollars when a patient requires new medication. However, this same sense of urgency isn’t felt in other areas of public service. No automatic funds will flow when a social worker seeks to prevent that same client from becoming homeless. If a client lacks a couple of hundred dollars to pay their rent, a social worker would have no means to help them.

Lack of such support is a routine problem in social services. Many social workers often struggle to locate the resources necessary to meet their client’s basic needs, such as rent. Homeless prevention is crucial, yet we have no effective system for this.

Often, social workers meet their clients’ needs out of their own pockets. However, when you have 50+ clients, that is not realistic. Furthermore, it should not fall upon the social worker to come up with those funds, especially considering their job is already severely underpaid.

The Exodus of Experienced Social Workers

Unsurprisingly, social services struggle to retain their best social workers—society treats them poorly. These are people who experience heartache daily, facing society’s failings head-on. Social workers fight for us when we can’t fight for ourselves. It is a stressful and painful job, but it’s necessary. Yet they face numerous systemic failings.

Homeless prevention is by far the most underfunded cause, leaving social workers with almost no resources to combat the homeless crisis. This crisis leads to burnout, high turnover rates, and an overall decline in the effectiveness of social services.

To address this, we must demand substantial funding increases and systemic reforms to ensure that social workers are equipped to fulfill their crucial roles and that the most vulnerable in our society receive the support they desperately need. Only then can we hope to break the cycle of poverty and homelessness.

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Jocelyn Figueroa


Jocelyn Figueroa studied Creative Non-Fiction at The New School and is a blogger and freelance writer based out of New York City. Formerly homeless, she launched her own blog discussing shelter life in New York City. Today, Jocelyn is on a mission to build connections through storytelling and creative writing. Check out her book about homelessness at

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