Recent graduate from the MA in Urban Sustainability program at AULA, Vanessa Rios, wrote a policy brief this year, titled “Urban Solutions for Developing a Sustainable Workforce in the Homeless Services Sector of Los Angeles County.” Rios also created a campaign video to amplify workforce challenges within the homeless services sector through story-based strategy.
The campaign is intended to open up lines of communication between workers and nonprofit executives in order to promote workforce retention and strengthen the homeless services sector.” Her team included Jerry Jones of Inner City Law, who is nationally recognized for extensive experience on policy issues related to housing, hunger, and poverty. Rios states that the project has come together around a number of synergistic elements, including the conjunction of her Antioch fieldwork with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (better known as LAANE); ongoing conversations with Celina Alvarez, Executive Director of Housing Works; and her own mental health advocacy research.
The brief states, “In 2017, Measure H, a sales tax measure to fund homeless services and prevention, was approved by county voters. It is expected to generate approximately 1,000 jobs to combat homelessness.”
This is great news, right?
Well… yes! BUT, major adjustments need to be made in order to equitably address the sudden growth in the homeless services sector. Rios compares it to being a parent of two children, and then all of a sudden having six children to take care of. The resulting situation would be overwhelming at best, and it is likely that some of those kid’s needs would get lost in the shuffle. “My hope is that private and public sectors are able to not only create systems change but also develop solutions that are inclusive and collective. Because, let’s be honest, we’ve been doing the same thing for nearly four decades—expansion in services without long-term solutions,” Rios said.
Rios began working with AB 2034 (funded services to reduce homelessness among the mentally ill) homeless persons on Skid Row in Los Angeles at age twenty-one. She moved on to work in supportive housing, providing services for homeless individuals with a history of substance use and/or severe mental illness. As an individual with a herstory that includes a parent with substance abuse issues, child abuse, and housing instability, Rios personally identified with this work and was extremely devoted to its mission. When she left her job in the homeless services nonprofit sector after nearly a decade, it was not because her work wasn’t meaningful, nor was it income related.
Rios left the work because something felt off in the way that she was moving through the world. She had an inkling that her own mental health was suffering, and realized that she and her fellow workers were not being supported in their personal struggles by the organizations they were working for. She had a feeling that if she didn’t leave, she wouldn’t acquire the skills needed to change the sector, and that she would crash.
Two decades ago, the majority of homeless services workers were people with similar backgrounds (many being workers of color), meaning that they had endured homelessness, housing instability, or trauma in their lifetime and then decided to devote their work lives to helping others struggling with similar circumstances. Rios remembers from her early days in the field that, due to high illiteracy rates and/or language issues, the execution of case notes was a major source of stress for many of her co-workers.
Rios wondered; Why weren’t (aren’t) these individuals provided with the training and resources to complete an essential component of their job?
Over the last ten-fifteen years, she’s seen a major shift in the demographics of the workers. Currently, approximately 50% of workers are not peers, and many are graduates of four-year colleges who are working to complete clinical hours and gain work experience before moving on to private practice or county jobs with upward mobility and benefits. This dynamic puts the uncredentialed workers at a disadvantage and also has the effect of a less stable source of support for beneficiaries of homeless services.
There is little to no upward mobility for homeless services workers who have not received a college education.
Rios tells a story about a case she took on with an individual who was a member of a multigenerational family dealing with housing instability, and who, at their first meeting asked; “How long are you going to last?”
Homeless residents are accustomed to workers leaving the sector faster than organizations are able to keep up.
When Rios left her job in homeless services to begin a master’s program at Antioch University Los Angeles in Urban Sustainability, Rios’ lifestyle as a homeless services worker began to catch up with her, and she began exhibiting symptoms of the trauma exposure cycle. After so much time being a frontline worker dealing with high stress, high stakes, emotionally taxing (to say the least) situations on a daily basis, she found that slowing down caused all of her own unprocessed trauma (from childhood and vicarious trauma from her work) rose to the surface. She found that she was hypervigilant and always prepared for the worst. She found herself pacing the courtyard at AULA, her thoughts disconnected from the world around her. Like so many of her fellow workers, she needed help. Fortunately, she had the awareness and the resources to seek help on her own.
Mental illness (often a result of burnout and compassion fatigue), lack of leadership and organizational support, unrealistic funding requirements, and inability to advance in one’s field are the main reasons why there is such high turnover amongst workers in homeless services.
The workforce initiative, Rios’ grassroots effort to raise awareness around the support needed for homeless services workers, has been presented to the Provider Alliance to End Homelessness, an alliance endorsed by 57 organizations in Los Angeles County. It also will be presented to the Home for Good Funders Collaborative and the Los Angeles Economic & Workforce Development Department later this summer.