Homelessness Outreach Workers In LA Are Exhausted And Stressed Out
With election races heating up across Los Angeles, candidates are focusing on the homelessness crisis — and how to fix it. Visible homelessness has become a point of contention among voters who say billions of dollars have been invested, without much difference on the streets.
On the front lines are outreach workers, hired by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and other nonprofits to make contact with unhoused Angelenos, and offer services and shelter.
Although these workers have housed 80,000 people since 2020, according to LAHSA, even more Angelenos have fallen into homelessness during that time. This never-ending task of getting people off the streets has left many exhausted and stressed out. They also experience financial stress, since the job is not well-paid, and many say they don't make a livable wage.
When Heidi Marston resigned as executive director of LAHSA in April, she said there needs to be a reckoning in how we view outreach workers.
“We need to pay people what they should be paid to do this work that's really hard, and stop trying to piece things together at the lowest cost possible,” Marston said.
To get a sense of their lives, LAist talked to several outreach workers, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity, out of fear of retaliation.
A LAHSA supervisor described how he became an outreach worker because he wanted to make a difference. Formerly unhoused himself, he made $17 per hour when he started, spending long, long days doing referral paperwork, and getting documents like IDs and Social Security cards to assist people living on the street transition to housing or shelter.
Interactions were often stressful. Some unhoused people wouldn’t accept offers of shelter he made because it meant living in group settings with strangers. Others were actively struggling with addiction. He recalled the time he worked with a woman who was raped while she lived on the streets.
“You see a lot of trauma out there,” he said. “A lot of times I was bringing my work life home with me. And, you know, sometimes I wouldn't be in such a great mood.”
That took a toll on his relationship with his child, he said.
“We were both living in a studio apartment for a long time. I had my bed and [they] had [their] bed. We had a coffee table in the middle of the room, a bathroom and a kitchen.”
If you're overloaded, you can't really provide that quality care to the cases on the roster. That means that the actual participants that we’re serving in the community, they're not going to receive that quality attention or care from individuals.
Later he managed to get a one-bedroom apartment so his child could have privacy while he slept on a couch. When federal money in the form of hazard pay started flowing to L.A. at the onset of the pandemic, his hourly rate jumped to $27 per hour and he was able to get a two-bedroom apartment. The extra money meant he could now afford to pay for childcare when needed or take his daughter to amusement parks to celebrate special occasions.
“Our quality of life improved and it also brought me and my [child] closer together,” he said. But the money for the pay raise eventually ran out.
In March 2021, Marston decided to directly increase the pay for outreach workers at LAHSA, setting the hourly base pay at $24. She said in an interview shortly after resigning that 91% of the people who got a pay bump were people of color, many with lived experiences of being unhoused themselves.
The outreach worker said he stays because he knows not many people are equipped to do outreach work.
“They would be scared to go into the streets and go to encampments and do the work I was doing,” he said.
Hit With Reality
Another LAHSA outreach worker said he was naive about the system and its complexities when he started, and had no idea what he was getting himself into.
“I was hit with reality when I saw my first encampments in South L.A.,” he said. “I was blown away. I had the heart to come and make a difference so I do the best I can, and learn as much and try to keep my head above water.”
He said his passion was reignited when Project Roomkey started and they had places to offer people living on the streets that weren’t communal shelters. He said he was able to move roughly 60 people indoors.
“All of a sudden we went from having minimal resources in which to place people, to having Motel 6’s and different places at our disposal,” he said. But Project Roomkey has slowly wound down.
“So it is back to offering people something that most likely they're not going to accept,” he said, adding that it’s similar to sales jobs where someone can offer 100 people a service or product, but only one person will accept.
The outreach worker said he is lucky to have a spouse who allows him to “trauma dump.”
“My poor [spouse] gets an earful a lot of time and is really key to helping me maintain my enthusiasm for this job,” he said.
He said it’s disheartening to hear politicians bash outreach workers in the news.
“We know what the system is capable of when provided with resources,” he said. “It takes the heat off them and they’re able to point the finger.”
The pay increase at LAHSA didn’t stretch to all nonprofits that work in homelessness outreach. Many service providers have complained that LAHSA’s pay raise meant they lost outreach staff because they were unable to match it due to budget constraints.
The Toll Of Turnover
There are currently many vacancies in the homelessness nonprofit space, according to service providers who spoke to LAist. Lucia Beltre, a management consultant and founder of Minority in Business Association, said there is always high turnover in the social services space, especially homelessness, and the work is emotionally distressing.
“There's fires every day,” Beltre said. “We're dealing with social services, real life, and human problems.”
When staff leave jobs working in homelessness or other social services, those roles take longer to fill and lead to larger caseloads for those who remain, according to Beltre.
“If you're overloaded, you can't really provide that quality care to the cases on the roster,” Beltre said. “That means that the actual participants that we’re serving in the community, they're not going to receive that quality attention or care from individuals.
"And there are individuals who do need, what they call intensive-case management, and are considered high acuity. So it's not enough to just chat for 20 minutes that week or meet with them for one hour that week," she said. "They have their human-being-with-real life issues, and one hour a week of just meeting with them is not really going to provide that wrap-around.”
The toll this takes on outreach workers is enormous, according to Beltre, who used to work in housing agencies focused on ending homelessness. She said it’s stressful to have to go into the streets to offer people housing, but have nowhere to send them or to realize many need additional help related to mental health.
“It can take a toll, because every day you wake up with a purpose,” she said.
“Naturally, as a human being, you are going to feel a little bit of guilt. You are trained to learn how to not let those feelings take over you, but you can't help but think about family, children, or elderly," she said.
"You know, I've had cases with a lot of elderly folks who are dealing with homelessness because of their disability and not having families. So who wants to see a 80-year-old woman, 75-year-old man, just perish in the street?”