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There was a conversation on LinkedIn last week about what we pay Homeless Services Frontline staff that sparked my attention. I have been thinking about this off and on over the past several months. As with many places across the country, my local Denver metro area has significant work to do to increase access to shelter and affordable housing. We have thousands of people experiencing homelessness and a shelter system that must continue to grow rapidly. In addition, more than 30,000 people who have migrated largely from South America have arrived in Denver in the past year or so. To help support these groups with transitional shelter, the City has opened a variety of temporary shelter options and has been hiring folks to help staff the shelters. 

But, I find it truly flabbergasting to see such positions posted with low hourly wages. On our local nonprofit association website, I found positions listed requiring a Bachelor’s degree, bilingual abilities and a year of experience to provide crisis support to people experiencing domestic violence. At a few local nonprofits, those were listed with pay at $18.30 – $22.50/hour). Denver’s current minimum wage is $18.29. This is barely above minimum wage. The positions advertised by the City of Denver for staffing temporary shelters were a bit better at $25/hour for day shifts and $32 for overnight shifts. 

These types of jobs are extremely demanding, requiring deep interpersonal skills, resource navigation, conflict resolution, and de-escalation. Many also required bilingual abilities and intercultural skills without differential pay.  In addition to that, they often include schedules for evenings, nights, and weekends. These are very challenging roles that are best filled with highly trained and experienced individuals to result in the best experiences and outcomes for people going through some of the toughest moments in their lives. Expecting that service providers and case managers can provide services that lead to long term housing for individuals is a near miracle in the first place against the systemic barriers. When you layer onto that low wages, minimal benefits and tough working conditions, it’s no wonder that these roles struggle with retention and therefore success.  

The takeaways from this conversation:

  1. Direct services staff deserve not only living wage, but competitive pay for demanding jobs.
  2. We must stop gendering the work of direct service providers, and assuming that women will take on this work for low wages because it is a “caretaking” type role. 
  3. Better pay can support better staff retention and therefore more experience and better quality of service.
  4. We must hire highly qualified candidates for these roles and also invest in training and support in order to expect great outcomes when it comes to the most challenging and intractable social problem like homelessness. 

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