When Aaliyah Bains was hired as a building assistant at the Bob and Marcia Almquist Place in July 2020, she knew it would be a tough job. She knew it was home to more than 100 newly housed, disabled people, most of whom had moved in after years in homeless shelters or the street.
She also knew she’d be making less than $40,000 a year and could only afford a 200-square-foot studio in the University District. But she was a college student and thought she could make it work. And for over a year, she did — she didn’t even have to apply for the food stamps she qualified for.
But Bains wasn’t prepared for just how tough her job would be.
Many nonprofit leaders have wished their whole careers that the federal government would step in and put more money into addressing homelessness, and now at the same time there’s more federal money pouring into the city and county to house people than in recent memory, they’re watching their workforce melt down.
At Almquist Place, even after Bains was promoted to housing case manager and started making closer to $45,000, she had to pay for her own masks for much of 2020; she was responsible for persuading COVID-19-positive tenants to quarantine, then delivering food and filling any needs for the few who did; and when a few troubled tenants would brandish knives or threaten to hurt someone, she’d call the police and they often wouldn’t come.
For all this, the 21-year-old and her co-workers lived paycheck to paycheck.
“There’s times when my co-workers said ‘Man, I had to borrow 500 bucks from my parents because I couldn’t pay rent this month,’ ” Bains said. “We were all barely scraping by.”
But while pay in this sector has always been notoriously awful and few last for long, the pandemic and the ensuing labor shortage in nearly every low-paying sector have brought it to crisis levels, according to nonprofit leaders in Seattle.
Last month, Bains quit. Her story is all too common in the meat grinder of homeless services, where about 160,000 full- and part-time workers across the U.S. make an average $24,000 a year and turnover is high.
The issue has gotten so bad that it could stall plans to expand the shelter system this fall with newly bought and funded hotels, apartment buildings and “enhanced shelters” to try to recoup after COVID-19 upended traditional mats-on-the-ground homeless shelters.
“We don’t want this moment to pass us by where we can really make the huge dent we want to make in our homeless crisis,” said Noah Fay, housing program director at the Downtown Emergency Service Center, one of Seattle’s largest homelessness nonprofits. “But I really worry we just can’t get the workforce to make that happen.”
There are currently 142 openings at the nonprofit, which has already added 141 positions since the start of the pandemic, according to Fay. At an organization with more than 800 employees, there’s a vacancy rate of nearly 18%. Average starting pay at Downtown Emergency Service Center and Catholic Community Services of Western Washington, another large shelter nonprofit, is about $18 an hour for front-line staff.
The stalled hiring is also complicating campaign promises from King County Executive Dow Constantine, whose administration has overseen the purchase of seven hotels and a new apartment building with money from a new sales tax. He promised to permanently house 1,600 people — more than a third of the chronically homeless people in the county.
But only four of those buildings are scheduled to open this fall, and of those four, only one adds beds to the system. Two are replacing capacity lost elsewhere in the system, according to Fay at Downtown Emergency Service Center. One has been serving as a socially distanced shelter for people moved out of crowded shelters at the beginning of the pandemic.
“The open question of ‘Can we find people to actually do the work,’ is something that keeps us up — keeps me up — many nights,” Fay said.
Case managers at three of the region’s biggest shelter providers — Downtown Emergency Service Center, YouthCare and Low-Income Housing Institute — average between $47,000 and $52,000 a year, according to a spokesperson for the King County Regional Homelessness Authority. In comparison, Seattle’s median individual income was $81,290 as of 2019. The authority’s newly hired CEO Marc Dones has made improving pay one of its priorities.
Compensation at the top varies much more at these nonprofits. According to tax documents, the executive director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center made a little over $130,000 in 2019, whereas Catholic Community Services’ president made more than $300,000 last year.
In August, a special meeting of the Seattle City Council’s select committee on homelessness was called before the council members went on recess so that a virtual envoy of nonprofit employees could beg them to consider a pay raise when they come back and budget season begins.
The select committee’s head, City Councilmember Andrew Lewis, wants to increase pay and said in an interview that sheltering a population with serious mental and physical disabilities is public safety work, so shelter workers should be paid as much as firefighters and police officers.
“To do this work and to do this work right is going to cost more money than what we’ve historically paid,” Lewis said.
The previous council passed a cost-of-living increase that totaled more than three quarters of $1 million for 2020.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s Human Services Department — whose homelessness division has also become understaffed in the last two years — has been increasing contracts’ wages since 2018. In 2022, that increase will total $2.4 million, according to Kamaria Hightower, a spokesperson for the mayor.
Partially because of these improvements, nonprofits such as the Downtown Emergency Service Center were seeing turnover rates improve dramatically before the pandemic hit, from nearly 50% in 2017 to 30% in 2020, Fay said. Projected turnover for 2021 is 35%.
Nonprofits are also funded by philanthropies and donations, but big-money donors prefer to commit one big sum rather than ongoing money that they see as the government’s role.
But even with philanthropy money and government contracts, pay is so bad at Catholic Community Services it’s “sinful,” said Bill Hallerman, a vice president at the nonprofit.
On top of that, nonprofit staff are being asked to do more than ever before. In the past two years, nonprofits have converted much of their overnight mats-on-the-ground shelters into 24/7 shelters with beds and a little more privacy, time to rest and staff to help. That requires not just overnight but dayside staff too, on the clock every hour, interacting with a population that doesn’t always want or have the option to quarantine.
The coronavirus is still in the mix, complicating employment as well. On Monday, when one Catholic Community Services employee tested positive for COVID-19, seven others on the team — who administer rent vouchers — had to leave the office and get tested, according to Dan Wise, the director of homeless services.
Hallerman said at the select committee meeting in August that in his 26 years at the nonprofit he’s never seen it struggle so much with staff.
“There’s no way to address the capacity when you and other government folks come and say, ‘Can you do this? Could you guys expand? Can you do more, can you do more?’ ” Hallerman said. “My biggest fear is I won’t be able to hire people to follow through on that.”
This story has been updated.