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Editorial: Service providers get homeless people off the streets and into housing. Pay them what they need

Three people outside a motorhome in South L.A.
St. Joseph Center case manager John Cudal talks with Louie Rahr, center, outside Rahr’s motorhome in South Los Angeles last year.
(Los Angeles Times)

In the struggle to help homeless people move off the street, service providers — the entities that supply them food, guidance and other crucial forms of support — are the ones on the front lines. Their staff are the outreach workers who go to encampments and underpasses, and who seek out people slumped on sidewalks in plain view, huddled in the brush out of sight or living in cars. It can take days, weeks, even months to earn the trust of homeless individuals inured to street life and suspicious of anyone who wants to move them to an unfamiliar locale. Even as the pandemic raged in the past year, outreach workers were the ones who never stopped toiling in the streets.

They are also the case managers who work with people once they’re sheltered or housed and bring them back onto the grid — finding records and getting driver’s licenses and helping homeless people apply for government assistance. They get people the counseling or treatment they need and help them adjust to living inside, perhaps coaxing a resident who still sleeps in a car to come back to his or her apartment.

As Los Angeles city and county officials make an unprecedented push to create more shelter, interim housing and permanent supportive housing, there has never been more demand for these service providers.

Yet rarely are they paid what their work actually costs them.

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The total expenses to provide services at a shelter or housing development can be $70 to $125 per bed, depending on whether the clients have mental illnesses, substance abuse issues, chronic physical ailments or some combination thereof. Contracts administered by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, when paid out of the county and city budgets, provide only $50 to $65 per bed. Nonprofit contractors usually take the jobs anyway, then pare down costs or scramble to cover them with donations.

(One of the few agencies that does pay service providers what they need is the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, which contracts with them for supportive housing services.)

Similarly with contracts for outreach work, providers say they are never given what they need to pay their outreach workers more than about $42,000 to $45,000 a year. Case managers make roughly the same. Yet when the Homeless Services Authority directly hires outreach workers, the minimum the agency pays is $24 an hour, or just about $50,000 a year. So on the streets, outreach workers on contract are doing the same work as those employed by the Homeless Services Authority — but they’re getting paid thousands of dollars a year less.

No outreach worker is getting rich doing this. One service provider remembers opening the food pantry her agency operates for homeless people to some outreach workers who were just as hungry.

In fact, no one doubts that service providers are being underpaid. Homeless Services Authority Executive Director Heidi Marston says, “We know the cost of business has gone up.” But she says her agency doesn’t set the rates; the city and county do. Similarly, Cheri Todoroff, the interim director of the county Homeless Initiative, laments that rising costs are putting homeless service providers “under financial strain” even as they do “invaluable” work.

Well, here’s an incentive if not a mandate to fix that: The $1.9-trillion pandemic relief bill enacted in March, which included $5 billion for homelessness programs, dictates that recipients of the money pay contractors enough to “cover the actual total program costs and administrative overhead to provide the services contracted.” And the city and County of Los Angeles are definitely among those recipients.

Todoroff says it’s important to ensure that increasing bed rates “won’t have the unintended consequence of decreasing our bed capacity.” But the problem cuts both ways. Paying lower and lower rates won’t get providers to service more and more beds — people have to be able to cover their costs to do this crucial work. The fact that providers have been low-balled for so many years only shows how much city and county officials have taken their acquiescence for granted.

It’s also an equity issue, says John Maceri, the chief executive of the People Concern, who has been advocating for fair contracts. Many of the outreach workers and case managers are Latino and Black people — as are the majority of homeless people.

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Let’s not impoverish the people working the hardest to get the poorest of the poor into shelters and housing. Let’s pay them what they need to be paid.

This is humanitarian work at its core, and service providers do it because they care deeply about housing homeless people. But they should not be paid less than their costs — or less than LAHSA pays its own workers — because the city and county can get away with prevailing upon their goodwill. If homelessness is our biggest crisis, then invest in the people that the city and county depend on to get homeless people off the streets.


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