Utah’s response to homelessness is complicated by staff shortages

It’s a familiar line in news stories.

Homeless service providers, swamped with increasing demand for programs and shelters, are struggling to hire and retain enough workers to meet those needs.

“It’s a real problem in the system right now,” said state homelessness coordinator Wayne Niederhauser, “because what we need is a consistent workforce to really break down those barriers that the homeless and the people in our shelters really have.” “

Staffing issues have consistently plagued social services, but meeting this challenge – and raising the funds to do it – has proved and remains difficult.

Niederhauser said it’s ultimately up to service providers to make sure they’re fully staffed.

Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, said the community as a whole plays a critical role in securing funding – for staff and beyond – at the Wasatch Front’s three main homeless shelters.

Meeting the growing demand for homeless services depends on strengthening the workforce in the Beehive State system. In short, the shelters need staff to do their job.

That equation seems simple enough, but Utah officials haven’t come up with an answer yet.

While work at the shelter can be rewarding, it can also be exhausting and demoralizing. In recent years, the fluctuation rates among providers have in some cases increased to almost 200%. And the $18 to $22 an hour they offer frontline workers is hard to sell when there are less tedious but more lucrative jobs.

How staffing affects the system

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amela Dzafi works as a case manager at the Pamela Atkinson Resource Center in South Salt Lake, Tuesday, August 15, 2023.

Karissa Guthrie was the case manager for The Road Home at the Midvale family home for two and a half years, where she estimates she has worked with more than 30 families at one time.

“It made it really difficult,” she said, “to make sure I’m reaching out to everyone and making sure nobody falls through the cracks.”

An ideal caseload would have been closer to 10 families, Guthrie said, giving workers ample time to “go into the trenches.”

Niederhauser said the system relies on workers like Guthrie to build trust with those who need services. Without a steady workforce, he said, it would be harder to get uninhabited Utahns on the road to help.

Despite the crowded caseload, Guthrie, now the nonprofit’s community relations coordinator, said the work proved important enough to last to the point where she became a case manager supervisor.

“I’m sticking with it because helping people is my passion,” she said. “I sat there and thought, ‘Maybe I’m the only person today that they have a positive interaction with or who can help them get one step closer to their placement.’ Nobody should be homeless.’”

Of course, staff shortages do not only affect case managers. They’re also crowding out positions across the board as providers struggle to attract and retain frontline shelter workers.

These problems are exacerbated when providers need to hire large numbers of new employees, such as in the run-up to winter when homeless centers expand capacity to accommodate additional beds in the coolest months.

Last year, labor shortages prevented at least one resource center — the Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center in Salt Lake City — from reaching its allowable capacity until at least mid-December, when demand skyrocketed due to a cold snap.

Not only is it difficult to attract applicants for homeless service positions, but it is also difficult to retain them, Niederhauser said.

“Once they find something that pays them more, because they have a vested interest in getting housing, providing transportation and everything else necessary to live on,” he said, “they’re going to take that.”

What led to staff shortages?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tristan Cholico and Tristin Ospina at the Pamela Atkinson Resource Center in South Salt Lake, Tuesday, August 15, 2023.

The bottom line, according to Niederhauser, is that service providers need more income in order to increase wages and close staffing gaps. The factors that contributed to these funding gaps, he says, are due to Utah’s changing approach to homelessness.

As the state transitioned from a centralized shelter in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande area to a distributed shelter model that stretches across the Utah capital and neighboring South Salt Lake, the system became more expensive. In order to compensate for the additional costs, case management was reduced.

That compromise, Niederhauser said, along with a developing job market that requires higher wages, has exacerbated staffing problems.

Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, which runs two adult resource centers and one family resource center, said she supports the new model but noted it was never fully funded.

The buildings are larger, require more labor, house fewer people than the old Rio Grande shelter, and are more expensive.

While The Road Home is responsible for funding and running the old shelter, Flynn said the new resource centers must be the responsibility of the wider community.

“It can’t,” she said, “just be the responsibility of the operators.”

Niederhauser has pointed out the dangers of wage inequality between caseworkers here and those in neighboring Nevada.

“If we have frontline workers who can’t even afford their own housing,” he said, “then we struggle with that.”

While Utah workers average about $22 an hour, workers with similar jobs in Reno make more than $32 an hour. (These wages in Nevada, he noted, have been boosted through the use of federal COVID-19 aid.)

Flynn said if leaders want workers in the Beehive State to make as much as they do in the Silver State, then the government could provide the money to help make that happen.

“Something that might help us pay those kinds of wages,” Flynn said, “was that our government agencies that provide some of that funding — so the state and county in particular would be good — that they get the same.” would.” Kind of an approach to make sure the funds they provide are enough to pay those wages.”

The State Office is looking for additional funds

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cole Farrior and Madison Bost at the Pamela Atkinson Resource Center in South Salt Lake, Tuesday, August 15, 2023.

The salaries and benefits for The Road Home’s more than 300 employees total approximately $16.3 million. Of this, government grants cover $8.7 million, with the remainder funded by private donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations.

While The Road Home’s donor network is robust, Flynn said, philanthropists are not immune to the impact of rising costs.

“The people who support us are also facing the increased expenses in the community,” she said. “We cannot expect a significant increase in private donations as we know our donors are also struggling financially.”

Niederhauser said the state donates $25 million annually to homeless service providers, and in the upcoming 2024 session he intends to ask for more as extra beds become available and inflation drives up labor costs.

While Niederhauser said staffing levels have deteriorated in the two years he’s been in office, Flynn and Trevor Hudspeth, a recruiter for the nonprofit Volunteers of America Utah, said they’ve seen improvements.

Hudspeth, whose organization operates the Women’s Resource Center in Utah’s capital, said VOA has increased wages significantly and turnover has decreased compared to previous years at jobs he says are emotionally and physically demanding.

“We’ve done a good job,” he said, “of finding people who are qualified and want to do the work.”

For her part, Flynn said The Road Home has increased wages and is trying to highlight the importance of its workforce.

“Our people are the heart of our agency,” she said. “You are at the heart of this work to provide this crisis support network in our community. We need to compensate them and fully staff our programs so that we’re there when people need that crisis assistance, and I don’t think that need will diminish any time soon.”

After all, emergency shelters in Utah have beds to match. But it’s the people who bring the heart.

Justin Scaccy

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