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Struggling to recruit, homelessness service providers face hiring challenges

Fatherhood Channel and Marketplace Reporting

Three years on from the onset of the pandemic, industries from hotels to health care are struggling to find workers. Recruiting and hiring challenges are particularly severe for frontline programs serving homeless populations.

Vacant positions prevent clients getting off the streets

Vacant positions are often a hidden barrier to getting their clients off the street and into stable housing, activists say.

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.”

Not for everyone

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. But I feel like the ones that actually get it, like get the point of working with the people are the ones that stay.”

– Leticia Rosales

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.

Finding the needle in a haystack

Purpose Built Families Foundation, a nationally-accredited Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) collaboration serving the Greater Miami area, depends on a Director of Leadership Development for the agency’s recruitment and hiring activities.

“In our field, we’re serving people in crisis day after day. Doing that consistently takes supporting team members so they can be fully present with heart and mind. Much of that is about helping our staff pursue work-life balance and knowing they can depend on their colleagues.”

– Rachel Marmor

Leadership Director Bill Spinosa says the agency typically considers 100 applicants for every job offer, but that’s become more difficult in the pandemic and post-pandemic environment.

“Recruiting frontline professionals to deliver client-center, compassionate, trauma informed care takes finding the needle in the haystack over and again,” Spinosa says.

Rachel Marmor, LCSW

Rachel Marmor, the agency’s full time Chief Wellness Officer is a licensed mental health professional. Marmor focuses significant time looking out for team members and helping staff pursue work-life balance.

“In our field, we’re serving people in crisis day after day. Doing that consistently takes supporting team members so they can be fully present with heart and mind. Much of that is about helping our staff pursue work-life balance and knowing they can depend on their colleagues,” Chief Wellness Officer Rachel Marmor says.

Workforce needs to grow by 20%

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%. Purpose Built Families Operation Sacred Trust collaboration for preventing veteran homelessness and suicide doubled its staffing through the pandemic, including a combination of onsite and remote professionals.

One particular type of worker has been really hard to get are licensed clinical social workers such as Rachel Marmor, according to Johansen. People with master’s degrees in social work are trained to work with people with mental illness or substance abuse issues.

Competition for social workers

“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.

Investing in AI solutions

Purpose Built Families CEO Seth Eisenberg says that competition means doing a better job providing a living wage, helping staff manage competing priorities, and substantial investments in technology to help people focus on delivering people skills. Part of that technology investment is developing AI solutions to support basic service and information delivery, Eisenberg says. This year, Eisenberg expects AI-powered technology to become an important aspect of how the nonprofit overcomes hiring and retention challenges.

“Increasingly robust and affordable AI solutions can make the difference this year,” Eisenberg says.

Competitors for service providers 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.

California pilot program

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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