Workers on the front lines of the homelessness crisis deserve living wages, not poverty wages

Mayor Bruce Harrell unveiled his administration’s new homelessness data dashboard in front of Dockside, an affordable housing building slated to open in Green Lake. (Credit: Seattle Channel)

Cops often earn triple the salaries of social workers in Seattle; wage inequality undermines the city’s response to homelessness.

Seattle’s answer to homelessness relies on workers earning around $40,000 a year. Is it any wonder then that hundreds of positions remain unfilled, turnover is high, and the city’s dream of ending the homelessness crisis continues to be a fantasy? We are simply not putting our money where we are when it comes to ending the homelessness crisis. It is time for that to change.

Mayor Bruce Harrell holds the key to solving this problem. While still a city council member, Harrell voted to pay better wages to homeless service workers, thereby blocking inflationary adjustments. But the budget he proposed last month backtracks on that commitment and cuts back on the increases they needed to make, balancing the budget on the backs of those frontline workers. Not all agencies were asked to make such sacrifices. In fact, lateral hires at the Seattle Police Department (SPD) are in line for $30,000 bonuses, a sum almost as large as an entire year’s salary for many social service providers.

Meanwhile, reduced raises for social service workers effectively amount to a pay cut in times of high inflation, homeless advocates have argued. This puts these workers at risk of becoming homeless themselves. The National Low Income Housing Coalition calculated a worker would have to make about $39 an hour, or about $81,000 a year, to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the Seattle metro area. That’s double what many Seattle contract social workers earn.

“It is unacceptable that workers working around the clock with people in crisis are themselves unstablely housed,” said Jessie Friedmann, director of public policy at YouthCare, which she says has a turnover rate of 70% staff, the Seattle Times reported.

A common justification for high salaries for police officers is often that they face danger, risk their lives, and deal with stressful situations in the course of their work. Social service workers, however, may face similar dangers given the mental health issues facing a significant portion of their clientele, and yet they are paid only a fraction of what police officers earn. The Seattle Times analyzed the remuneration of the SPD in 2019 and found median gross salary of $153,000 for sworn officers, with some earning far more than that, supported in part by back pay negotiated in their 2018 contract.

A shortage of social service providers is rarely, if ever, presented as a public emergency, but the mainstream expert class is constantly worried about police staffing levels and the difference between an average response time of eight minutes for emergency calls and the so-called promised land of seven-minute response time. At the same time, crisis care assistance provided by social service providers can help reduce the number of situations that can escalate into emergency calls that the police respond to, and the more skilled and experienced a provider is, the better off they are. is equipped to effectively serve their customers during these challenging times. Maintaining such a workforce requires remunerating these workers at a level that recognizes the value of the role they play.

Erica Barnett Publicola has been first to highlight the toggle on pay raises from Mayor Harrell, who had previously pledged to increase salaries for social service providers, even during a recession.

“Three years ago, Harrell took the exact opposite position,” Barnett wrote. “In 2019, as chairman of the council, he proposed and passed an amendment not only emphasizing that the money should go directly to ‘underpaid’ workers, but that the city intended to provide full inflationary raises. “in times of economic growth and in times of economic hardship.

Barnett recounts that, presenting his amendment at a full council meeting that year, Harrell said: “Some of us have been where we’ve had real hard times, [during] a recession. Although we had to make difficult cuts, the work [human services providers] doing is so important that we recognize that we need to preserve, if not improve, funding” during times of economic downturn.

As mayor, however, Harrell backed away from that commitment, even with a city council that signaled strong support for higher wages for social service providers. Teresa Mosqueda, who sponsored the 2019 law giving higher wages to these social service workers and has served as the council’s budget chair since 2020, linked the issue of low pay to retention and recruitment issues.

The city cannot maintain a workforce of human service providers when “they themselves are eligible for food assistance and they themselves live without housing in our city because they are so underpaid,” Mosqueda said according to the Seattle Times.

The Downtown Emergency Services Center (DESC) has 193 vacancies on its website, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) has 95 vacancies and Catholic Charity Services has 86 vacancies, the Seattle Times reported, noting that not all of these positions are funded by the City of Seattle and therefore would not be affected by a change in raises.

It’s a staffing shortage that will surely hamper the city’s response to homelessness. If Seattle were actually building a social safety net to end this crisis from scratch, is that how we would be doing it?

Contracting out frontline social workers masks many problems, from low wages to the precariousness of Seattle’s social safety net.

Mayor Harrell’s budget director, Julie Dingley, told the council’s budget committee that capping service worker wage increases would save $7.15 million this year and $12.12 million l ‘Next year. Given the cost of the city’s response to homelessness, however, these budget cuts are insane.

During his campaign, Mayor Harrell promised to build 2,000 supportive housing units for the homeless in his first year in office. The town planner reported that Harrell was behind on honoring that pledge. The mayor said his 2023 budget will take the city to 2,000 units, but in addition to being behind schedule to deliver on his promise, the service provider staffing crisis calls into question whether those units will truly be supportive and capable of delivering. ‘provide comprehensive services that help get people out of the cycle of homelessness.

In this time of crisis, it is best to stick firmly to early commitments to increase the remuneration of social service providers to a living wage – and to provide ample supportive housing for homeless people as part of the housing first model. Paying poverty wages will not end the crisis.

The Planner’s editorial board is made up of Doug Trumm, Natalie Bicknell Argerious, Ryan Packer, and Ray Dubicki. Members Stephen Fesler and Shaun Kuo abstained from participating in this editorial.


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Michael A. Bynum