Study: Low pay for homeless workers in LA County makes them housing insecure

Workers employed by nonprofit homeless services agencies in Los Angeles County often do not earn a living wage, creating stress for the workers and making it difficult to retain staff and provide services, according to a report released this week by the RAND Corporation.

According to the report, salaries are “particularly low” for frontline workers who reach out to the county’s 70,000 homeless, creating health concerns and housing insecurity among the very workers who face challenging working conditions.

“From the worker perspective, earning such low wages has material consequences, including stress and housing insecurity — they may worry about becoming unhoused themselves,” said Lisa Abraham in a prepared statement. Abraham is the study’s lead author and an associate economist at Santa Monica-based RAND, a think tank that has delved into the issue of homelessness for several years.

“These challenges make it hard for a worker to develop a career when they themselves may be struggling to make ends meet,” Abraham added.

People Assisting the Homeless (PATH), a statewide nonprofit that contracts with the City of Los Angeles, many other cities, Los Angeles County and L.A. Metro, has recognized the problem for years but says their hands are tied.

Government agencies use formulas for pay and staffing ratios that keep a lid on salaries for homeless outreach workers who are hired by nonprofits. “It is something all of us have known for awhile,” said Jennifer Hark Dietz, CEO of PATH. on Thursday, May 11. “Our sector has not kept up with the cost of affordable housing.”

According to RAND, more than 200 nonprofit organizations in L.A. County are involved in homeless response efforts, and roughly 8,000 people work in the sector. But difficulties in hiring social workers and other homeless outreach team members have curtailed the amount of services provided.

The study’s authors estimated that most frontline workers — and even some of in management positions — don’t earn a living wage. According to the report, frontline workers earn roughly $40,000 to $60,000 annually, while supervisors and managers may earn more.

L.A. County has added incentives as a recruiting tool to hire more mental health workers and nonprofits are taking the same tack.

PATH starts entry level workers at $45,000, which is $5,000 more than they would get under government contracts. They add benefits such as pet insurance, wellness days and mental health coverage for the employees and their families, Hark Dietz said.

While this helps, she said the nonprofit PATH, which serves 19,000 homeless residents throughout the county, is still losing workers who can get higher salaries elsewhere. “Despite all that, if you are fundamentally not paying people to really thrive, then we are not meeting their basic needs,” said Hark Dietz.

With a living wage, she said PATH would see less turnover and provide more consistent services to contractors.

The RAND study concluded that increasing salaries for homeless response workers could improve the quality of their work by boosting morale, easing stress and reducing turnover.

Researchers calculated that a worker would need to earn a minimum of $64,000 in L.A. County to afford a one-bedroom apartment, or $82,000 for someone needing a two-bedroom unit, or $108,000 for a household needing a three-bedroom unit.

Despite Measure H, a local sales tax hike approved in 2017 to fund homelessness programs, concerns persist about working conditions and high turnover in the sector, according to RAND.

Hark Dietz said Los Angeles County has not increased its salary formulas since 2015. And supplementing the government’s payment requires private fundraising, something that has become more difficult due to an economy beset by inflation, she said.

She wants to see government agencies and nonprofits in the industry form a working group to discuss these issues.

“It is great to have this study,” she said. “Because now we have empirical evidence. We need funders at the table to support the recommendations in this study.”

City News Service contributed to this article.

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