Frontline workers in Portland’s homelessness crisis struggling to make ends meet

By Tiffany Camhi (OPB)
Aug. 15, 2023 1 p.m.

The people who work to help support Portland’s houseless community are struggling, both financially and mentally. That’s among the findings from a new report released by Portland and Multnomah County’s Joint Office of Homeless Services. The study looked at the wages and other challenges that the region’s homeless service provider workforce face. Nearly half of the workers surveyed made less than $45,000 a year. That’s below some nationally recognized living wage estimates for the Portland metro area.

The results of this study come after Multnomah County struggled to distribute money collected from the Metro supportive housing tax. That’s the income tax voters approved in 2020 to help fund homelessness services in the region. Multnomah County officials have blamed the underspending on staffing shortages and high turnover within the homeless nonprofits they work with.

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OPB’s All Things Considered host Tiffany Camhi spoke to Claudia Sharygin, a senior research analyst at the Joint Office of Homeless Services, about the details of the study.

Tiffany Camhi: Can you describe the kind of work that staff surveyed for this compensation study do for these organizations?

Claudia Sharygin: So we surveyed a broad range of staff at these organizations and that ranges from folks who work directly with clients on the street in our shelters in housing, uh all the way up to management and even uh executive leadership at the organizations.

Camhi: What prompted this study?

Sharygin: We had been hearing anecdotal evidence for years about our contracted providers facing challenges in recruiting people to work at their organizations. And then once people were working there, having trouble keeping folks. We knew that looking forward, with the Metro Supportive Housing Services measure funding, we needed to ramp up the workforce. And in planning for the new funding, one of the priorities was to try to understand more about these issues facing recruitment, retention and employee satisfaction in our workforce.

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Camhi: The study found that jobs helping people get out of homelessness are really hard jobs. What are some of the specific challenges that people face?

Sharygin: The main finding of the study, both in surveys and focus groups, was that people did not feel that their compensation allowed them to take care of their basic needs. In fact, fewer than one-third of all employees felt that their compensation allowed them to just live. Among frontline staff, people working directly with clients, it was even more common that people did not feel that compensation was adequate.

Camhi: And I know that researchers brought together focus groups of people doing this work to talk about their on-the-ground experiences. What did you hear from them?

Sharygin: Because of the low levels of compensation, people had to work second jobs. I can read this quote from one of the people who participated in the focus groups, “I’m seeing people leave to be bartenders and sex workers so that they can make more money. I’m seeing people who feel really passionate about the work and want to stay in this field, do side hustles in order to stay in the field just to make it work and make ends meet.” So again, the levels of compensation are really an issue.

Another one of the main takeaways from this study was that a lot of the people who are working with clients directly on the front lines have lived experience of homelessness themselves. This puts them in a really good position to work with the clients because they have that shared experience and that builds trust. But, at the same time, (workers) can relive some of those experiences that were traumatic. So it’s not a job where you can put it away at the end of the day.

Camhi: Low wages has become a widespread issue among homeless service providers across the United States. How does the Portland region stack up against other cities with similar problems?

Sharygin: So if you compare this study to studies that have been done in other cities, one thing that I was encouraged by is that the agencies that we contract with tend to provide pretty high levels of benefits. Most organizations provide paid time off and sick time. And they provide employee resource groups for folks from different cultural backgrounds to support each other in the work. But staff did not feel that they could take advantage of these benefits because of the level of workload that they had and the psychic burden of not being able to put the work away at the end of the day.

Camhi: Now that there’s some baseline data on homeless service provider staff in the Joint Office of Homeless Services network, what solutions are being discussed?

Sharygin: We have offered cost of living adjustments for pay and we plan to continue doing that as well as expanding that to as many agencies as possible. We’re also looking at some of the funds that were unspent in the previous year from the Metro supportive housing services measure. And while we have many priorities for those funds, supporting our contracted providers in developing their workforce is a key priority.

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