The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Seattle Foundation and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

Dozens of human services workers rallied at Seattle City Hall plaza on Tuesday morning, calling for the city and King County to adjust their wages to keep up with inflation and to preserve homelessness services that could go away as one-time federal funding expires. 

Staff from major homelessness and social service organizations held signs that read “I do essential work” while chanting “Poverty wages have got to go!”

As the city and county approach finalizing their budgets later this month, funding for the hundreds of workers who provide homelessness and other services to the region’s most vulnerable has emerged as one of the most contentious issues. The city is staring down a forecast that has predicted fewer and fewer revenues as the year has progressed, as well as skyrocketing inflation. Federal coronavirus relief funding is also set to expire at the end of the year. 

A city law passed in 2019 was supposed to ensure that front-line social service workers’ wages would continue to increase with inflation in these times. But the mayor’s proposed budget rolled that promise back.

People who work on the front lines to serve homeless people and the community’s most vulnerable populations say depressed wages are creating a bottleneck in the region’s homelessness response as service organizations are struggling to attract talent and existing staff are leaving for financial reasons.

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Sophie Rice-Sauer, a housing case manager at homeless services nonprofit Compass Housing Alliance, attended Tuesday’s rally. She said that the current staffing shortage in the homelessness sector is stretching the capacity of existing workers like her. She and her co-workers don’t have as much time to spend with their clients, which lengthens the amount of time they stay at the shelter before transitioning to permanent housing.

“People don’t deserve to be there six months,” Rice-Sauer said. 

At the same time, Rice-Sauer says she barely makes enough money to cover her expenses, while others say they can’t do even that.

“We don’t exist just to sell our labor,” Rice-Sauer said.

Human services workers like her often make about $40,000 to $42,000 a year. Seattle’s median income is more than $110,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Three of the region’s largest homelessness service organizations have more than 300 vacant positions.

King County has struggled to find enough workers to open hotels it purchased in the last year to house homeless people. Seattle officials say that projects in the city have struggled with the same issues.

Seattle law requires the city to keep wages for human services workers in line with inflation. In 2019, then-Councilmember Bruce Harrell voted with the entire Seattle City Council to create that law, even adding an amendment to do so “in both periods of economic growth and in periods of economic hardship.”

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But in September, Harrell, now mayor, proposed limiting wage increases for human services workers to 4% for the upcoming budget and all future budgets in a decision his administration described as “particularly difficult.” Inflation has averaged 7.6% over the past year according to a local measure the city uses. The cap on wage increases would save the city almost $20 million over the next two years as it faces stagnating revenue.

Harrell’s spokesperson Jamie Housen wrote that the mayor’s budget was an attempt to bridge the city’s $140 million revenue gap, but said the mayor welcomes collaboration with the City Council to address the “fundamental issues” impacting human services workers. He also wrote that the city could not afford to replace all of the one-time federal funding without “significant cuts to other ongoing programs and urgent community priorities.”

Several service organizations, which are contracted by government agencies, said they already funded inflationary wage adjustments for their workers expecting that the city would follow its own law and reimburse them for those costs.

It’s about more than wages too, said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness. She said service organizations are also struggling to pay increased costs for insurance and utilities. 

Since then, council members such as budget chair Teresa Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold have proposed budget amendments that would provide the full inflationary adjustment for human services organizations and replace expiring pandemic relief funding for homelessness services with city funds. That would cost almost $30 million over the next two years.

Both Mosqueda and Herbold spoke at the rally Tuesday morning. Mosqueda said the city’s law to tie service provider contracts to inflation is the bare minimum necessary to support front-line human service workers.

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“What we will not be doing is walking back on our promise. What we will not be doing is cutting your wages,” Mosqueda said. “We cannot care for our most vulnerable if we do not care for you.” 

Herbold said that providing anything less than an inflationary wage increase, which she views as a cut, would disproportionately affect women who fill the majority of social service positions.

Mosqueda has suggested using higher than anticipated JumpStart tax revenue, collected from businesses with high-earning employees, as a way that the city could fund essential programs while balancing its budget in the short-term. Mosqueda and Harrell have created a work group to identify new progressive revenue sources going forward so the JumpStart tax can be used for its primary intent of building more affordable housing and climate initiatives.

After the city and county released their budget proposals in September, King County Regional Homelessness Authority wrote a memo warning that $9.4 million in state and federal funding for homelessness services including shelter, rapid rehousing and outreach were set to expire. 

The authority said 20 programs at 12 agencies would lose an average of 40% of their funding. Some organizations used the one-time funding to expand from a day center into a full-time shelter, while others added capacity to their shelters. An authority spokesperson said it was difficult to estimate how many shelter beds would be impacted because the service organizations would be in charge of implementing any budget cuts.

“With thousands of people still sleeping outside, we cannot afford to reduce essential services,” the authority wrote in the memo. 

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Rally supporters have also called on King County to help replace the authority’s expiring funding in addition to preserving the Health Care for the Homeless Network, which provides medical, dental, substance abuse and behavioral health care to people experiencing homelessness. County Executive Dow Constantine and budget chair Joe McDermott did not respond to questions by deadline. 

 The program has existed for decades, and received a boost in one-time funding to contend with the pandemic. Now with funding expiring, the county plans to reduce its staffing for the program by 75%. Service workers say that the pandemic is not over, and there are many health needs contributing to the 135 homeless people who have died in King County this year and the 196 homeless people who died last year.

Chloe Gale, co-director of REACH, a city-contracted homelessness outreach team, spoke in front of Metropolitan King County Council members Tuesday morning at their budget meeting warning that the health of homeless people impacts the rest of the community.

“This public health response during the COVID pandemic crisis has been really critical to sustain the health of all of our communities, particularly our homeless service providers,” Gale said.

Seattle Times staff reporter Anna Patrick contributed to this story.