Transforming Tomorrow

Homeless Sector Leaders Use RAND Findings to Make the Case for Worker Pay Raises

A RAND study found that front-line homeless response sector workers in Los Angeles County often don’t make a living wage. Consequently, workers can struggle to find housing and may even experience homelessness themselves, compounding any potential existing personal challenges.

Michael Centeno is a true example of what recent RAND research has found. As a case manager working with people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, he tried unsuccessfully for three years to access affordable housing. He applied for a Section 8 housing subsidy, but he was turned down because his income exceeded the threshold by $700. Centeno, who ended up sleeping in his car, eventually lost his job.

“It makes me angry,” says Centeno’s former boss, Celina Alvarez, executive director of the nonprofit Housing Works. “Michael didn’t directly lose his job because he was unhoused, but when folks find themselves in desperate situations, they end up making decisions based on pure survival. I truly think that, if Michael had been housed, he could have kept his job.”

A RAND study found that front-line homeless response sector workers in Los Angeles County often don’t make a living wage. Consequently, workers like Centeno can struggle to find housing and may even experience homelessness themselves, compounding any potential existing personal challenges. The report from the RAND Center on Housing and Homelessness, which was launched with philanthropic support to help advance solutions to the country’s housing and homelessness crises, is making waves in Los Angeles. Leaders who work in homeless services are using it to encourage both city and countywide reappraisals of payment practices, and they are working to get legislative measures on the November 2024 ballot to address the problem.

Among other findings, RAND researchers concluded that workers in Los Angeles needed to make an estimated $64,000 annually to afford a one-bedroom apartment, or $82,000 to afford a two-bedroom. But workers employed by nonprofit homeless service agencies in Los Angeles are making about $40,000 to $60,000 a year.

“This work attracts the type of people who are willing to suffer in silence or burnout, but you cannot end homelessness by asking the employees on the front lines to be martyrs to the cause,” said Zeke Sandoval, a public policy manager at PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), a California-based nonprofit whose mission is to end homelessness for individuals, families, and communities.

Sandoval is among those who are using the findings from RAND’s report to influence policy and legislation. He and other homeless service providers worked with Los Angeles City Councilmember Nithya Raman to draft and pass a motion, citing RAND’s study, to look at the issue of pay deficiencies in the homeless sector workforce and the need to revise government contracts.

Besides the burden of housing and financial strain documented in the RAND report, the stress of this work often leads to burnout and high turnover, creating even more instability among an already vulnerable population. “It’s hard to have a relationship with a client if the case manager turns over every 6–12 months,” says Mark Loranger, president and CEO at homelessness services provider Chrysalis. “Effectiveness depends on trust and trust depends on relationships. You can’t build trust and relationships when there’s a high turnover rate.”

Change is long overdue, says Christine Margiotta, executive director of Social Justice Partners Los Angeles, an organization that sponsored the RAND study. In the past, housing sector leaders heard that workers were struggling and they relied on anecdotes and storytelling to make the case for funding. Now, using evidence from the RAND report, people like Margiotta have data to present to policymakers and philanthropic organizations to advocate for homeless service sector pay raises.

The proposed November ballot measure would change the way Los Angeles County funds homeless services. It includes a requirement that staff wages are aligned with public and private market conditions. The measure would ensure that professionals conducting street outreach, intensive case management services, behavioral health care, shelter supports, and prevention programs earn just as much at nonprofits as they would in comparable jobs with Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, or in the private sector.

“It’s rewarding to see RAND’s research findings being used in ways that can help improve pay and empower homeless service workers in Los Angeles,” said Lisa Abraham, an economist at RAND and the study’s lead author. “It’s also a great example of how data can inform policy for homeless response organizations and decisionmakers throughout the country.”

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