Many LA Homeless Service Workers Struggle To Afford Housing Themselves
Workers on the frontlines of solving the worsening homelessness crisis gripping Los Angeles are often struggling to stay housed themselves.
That’s because, according to a new research paper published Wednesday by the RAND Corporation, the region’s homeless services sector rarely pays these workers a living wage.
Lisa Abraham, a RAND associate economist who co-authored the study, said, “These are the workers who are interacting directly with the homeless population,” such as social workers, case managers, outreach workers, shelter staff and housing navigators.
Abraham and her colleagues used data on local rents from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to conclude that a living wage for a worker renting a basic one-bedroom L.A. apartment is $64,000 per year.
But when the researchers looked at salary ranges in online job postings for frontline homeless services positions in L.A. County, the annual pay offered was typically between $44,000 and $60,000.
Workers say they often can’t afford a place of their own
Michael Centeno, a case manager for Housing Works who helps clients transition into permanent housing, makes about $42,000 per year. He experienced homelessness himself in 2016 after struggling with mental health and addiction issues.
But since recovering and finding a job in 2021, Centeno said he still hasn’t been able to afford moving out of a recovery center, where he shares a three-bedroom apartment with six men.
“This space has been critical for my recovery, but it isn’t home,” he said. “I want a place where my daughter can visit and where she can keep her belongings and call her own.”
In addition to housing affordability challenges, low pay also leads to burnout in jobs that are known to tax workers’ mental health.
The homeless services workforce in L.A County includes 8,000 workers, but 1,349 job vacancies, according to estimates from a recent study by the consultancy group KPMG. That study also found that 53% of workers had been with their current employer for less than two years.
High turnover can complicate efforts to re-house Angelenos struggling to exit homelessness. L.A. Mayor Karen Bass has taken credit for her signature Inside Safe program moving over 1,200 people from tent encampments to temporary housing in hotels and motels.
But L.A. homeless service clients often face long journeys to finding permanent housing. Program participants can cycle through many case managers as service workers quit the field, and some Inside Safe residents have said they don’t even know who their case manager is.
Abraham said raising pay for frontline service workers could help stabilize housing situations for service workers themselves, and also indirectly help the clients they’re serving.
“Paying them higher wages has secondary effects in terms of potentially boosting morale, reducing stress, and thereby reducing turnover,” she said. “That continuity of care and higher quality of care can potentially impact and improve client outcomes.”
At last count, 69,000 people experience homelessness on any given night in L.A. County — a number that has grown in recent years. Voters approved multiple measures to raise taxes to confront the crisis, including 2017’s Measure H and 2022’s Measure ULA. Those efforts represent billions of dollars of investment, but the RAND report finds money isn’t being channeled toward living wages for frontline homeless service workers.
After tax increases, calls for further worker investments
The report was commissioned and funded by the nonprofit Social Justice Partners L.A. Executive Director Christine Margiotta said the report furthers their focus on racial equity.
“We know that the majority of frontline workers are Black and brown, and we had a strong suspicion that their wages were below a living wage,” Margiotta said. “We need to invest in the workforce and enable people who work in this sector to live at the standard of wellbeing that we want for everyone.”
In order to boost wages, the report recommends that philanthropic and government funders change how they structure their grants to homeless service organizations, who are often expected to achieve certain outcomes with funding that doesn’t reflect L.A.’s current economic demands. For example, the report says funders can give grant recipients the ability to make cost-of-living adjustments to employee salaries each year.
“We need fair increases in contracts to pay our employees,” said Celina Alvarez, Housing Works executive director. “We need to pay a living wage so they can afford a home of their own and keep doing this very important work.”
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