Service providers alongside the San Diego Police Homeless Outreach Team evaluate homeless residents in April 2020 to see who is eligible for placement into shelters amid the coronavirus pandemic. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

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Charles Dickens’ famous phrase “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times” could easily describe the weekly – if not daily – experience at many of our city’s homeless service providers. 

As leading providers in San Diego, we are fortunate to witness moments of great joy including families moving into stable housing for the first time in years, celebrating alongside a graduate of a training program who just got a new job, and supporting individuals to achieve their goals. But on many days, it feels more like the worst of times. We’re two years into the COVID-19 pandemic and we’re seeing a growing number of people experiencing homelessness, a huge lack of affordable housing, rising costs, and spikes in overdose deaths

Spending years on the streets takes its toll.  People with this experience are often placed in a category called “hard-to-serve” because they face so many “barriers” or significant and complex issues in securing housing and employment.

The staff of organizations like Father Joe’s Villages, PATH, Alpha Project, and Veterans Village of San Diego, who provide direct care and assistance to “hard-to-serve” populations, experience situations that many of us could never imagine. Although these situations do not epitomize the lived experience of the majority of people who are homeless, staff occasionally experience traumatic episodes that arise out of a neighbor’s mental health issues and/or substance use.

They also hear stories of extraordinary trauma from the clients they serve. Stories of horrific assault, abuse, rape, and injury mean that these staff members can have a lot to process at the end of the day. They regularly deal with situations involving violence related to psychological duress and overdoses. 

For these reasons, front-line staff including case managers, security officers, behavioral health workers, residential coordinators, and outreach workers are lauded for their dedication to the greater good. Driven by a passion for social-change and helping others, these individuals uplift countless people towards safe housing and better health, working to make the world a better place in the face of countless challenges.

Yet, these staff working the hardest jobs our city has to offer, are often paid low wages. We, the service providers of San Diego, would like to see City and County-wide investments to ensure front-line staff are paid living wages that increase with the cost of living.

PATH’s interim housing staff participated in a Critical Incident Stress Debrief group facilitated by a doctoral level licensed clinical supervisor. The clinician found that the groups’ experiences largely resembled those of first responders such as disaster workers, healthcare workers, social workers, and other high-risk occupational groups. 

As a result of the difficulty of their work,social workers are quickly burning out as they face the overwhelming needs of the community, all the while not being compensated equitably given the levels of stress they experience on the job. 

Social workers are continually faced with the question: Why continue doing work that is mentally and emotionally draining if they can make the same hourly rate doing less skilled work in other industries? The migration of social workers into new fields then leaves a massive hole in our system of service that affects our entire city, as there are fewer and fewer people able and willing to tend to the needs of those who are most difficult to serve. After all, social workers have their own health and families for whom to care.

While adjusting pay to make it commensurate with the challenges is undoubtedly a key part of any solution, nonprofit organizations face considerable challenges to make that happen. The salaries of their case managers are largely funded by government-issued grants.

Often, once a government-funded grant is awarded, the budget is set and typically remains flat for multiple years. This doesn’t provide room for annual salary increases or cost of living adjustments. As the cost of living in San Diego has increased, nonprofit wages have not kept pace and, at times, are stuck in rates established three, four or even five years ago when a program and grant was initially established.

Additionally, foregoing public funding and fundraising privately to cover the full cost of those positions would put an incredible burden on nonprofits, which rely on public funding to support a substantial portion of their budgets.

As a result, front-line social service staff are consistently underpaid and overworked. As we approach the two-year mark of the pandemic, outreach workers, case managers, residential services staff and other direct service employees are burning out more than ever before – leaving behind the positions they once loved for less meaningful work that better pays the bills. 

We rely upon social services staff to operate shelters for people experiencing homelessness, provide food and basic needs to people in dire need, and protect the health and wellness of those who are most vulnerable – critical functions in our community. Meanwhile, they are being stretched thinner and thinner, unable to fully operate at the capacity that the pandemic, our neighbors in need and our city demands. 

Further, much of the power of our work hinges on staff building trusting, supportive relationships with clients. This process is interrupted when there’s a high level of staff turnover and clients may feel discouraged about having to get to know a new employee. 

Even more, the people who, in theory, our society respects the most – the compassionate, skilled caregivers and humanitarians of the world – are not receiving the respect they deserve for their life-changing and life-saving work. This respect can be demonstrated through compensation that keeps pace with the cost of living–even just a couple dollars more an hour.

We can do better. We must do better — first, out of respect for those in caring professions and, ultimately, to provide the best support to individuals and families experiencing homelessness.

Our social workers, case managers, and on-the-ground social service providers need annual wage increases and need them now. As new funding is made available from the State of California and other funding sources, decision makers should look to not only set up new initiatives, but also to shore up existing programs that have generated results, but are underfunded. 

Let’s show our leaders that San Diego values hard work, compassion and dedication. Let’s show them that we care for those who care.

Jim Vargas

Deacon Jim Vargas brings more than 30 years of broad management experience to Father Joe’s Villages and empowers a staff of more than 400 people to enact...

Akilah Templeton

Akilah Templeton, president & CEO of Veterans Village of San Diego, is an experienced organizational change expert and leader whose career in mental...

Hanan Scrapper

Hanan Scrapper leads PATH San Diego as its regional director where she oversees the region’s comprehensive programming that helps people move from street...

Bob McElroy

Bob McElroy founded the Alpha Project in 1986 and brings over 35 years of experience spearheading the agency’s efforts to end homelessness by providing...

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1 Comment

  1. These selfless men and women together with schoolteachers, nurses, doctors and law enforcement are le creme de la creme of society. It’s sad that they are so often used by political candidates as pawns in getting elected to San Diego City Council. Most of our homeless need hospitals and not shelters. Daniel Smiechowski District 2

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