InvisAlert Solutions – ObservSMART

Supportive Housing Workers are Burnt-Out, Overworked, and in Dire Need of Support

Essential to the health and recovery of our formerly unhoused neighbors with the most complex needs are critical workforce investments for those who serve and support them. The future of supportive housing, the most effective tool available to combat chronic homelessness, is threatened by a severe staffing shortage of supportive housing workers, which has been slowly growing more dire and was exacerbated by the pandemic. Workforce issues and behavioral health are inextricably linked, requiring a stable and healthy workforce to effectively serve program participants, especially within the peer workforce.

A woman feeling tired and stressed, overworked, burnout and fatigue.

Existing programs are grappling with a 20-30 percent vacancy rate — making it increasingly difficult and dangerous to manage the sector’s current portfolio, let alone to staff new programs. As tenants require a higher level of services due to increasingly complex physical and behavioral health challenges, including the increased prevalence of more addictive and deadly narcotics like fentanyl and Xylazine, under-resourced and over-taxed staff are burning out at an alarming rate, with many opting to leave the profession altogether.

In March 2023, the Supportive Housing Network of New York (the Network) convened a series of roundtables with our members — who comprise the overwhelming majority of supportive housing providers in the state — to compile feedback informed by those doing direct, in-the-field work. The results were crystal clear: to live up to the promise of supportive housing, we need to address the staffing crisis in supportive housing immediately. If we do not, workers and tenants will be at risk.

New York can do just that in the upcoming state legislative session and budget process that begins in January. Gov. Kathy Hochul should set the table by prioritizing creating a human services staffing infrastructure based on good wages and other benefits like loan forgiveness, as well as prioritizing long-term retention by providing more training and certification opportunities in her budget proposal.

While supportive housing is designed to handle complex social issues, recent years have significantly escalated the size and scope of these challenges. Residents require more intensive care since the pandemic, and many are aging, posing significant challenges. At the same time, staff are trending younger and less experienced, grappling with chronically low pay and inconsistent cost of living adjustments (COLAs), forcing many to hold multiple jobs to make ends meet. Moreover, many staff members are regularly experiencing trauma, and programs cannot address the causes of that trauma or support residents in the way they deserve.

This is a dangerous combination. In fact, it creates a vicious cycle: these issues lead to heavy turnover, and supportive housing staff only get less experienced.

To break out of this cycle, we need a real roadmap to recruit and retain workers in the field – and that starts with wages. Wages for supportive housing staff should be regularly increased to reflect inflation. The state should codify this in the upcoming budget process – something the Network has repeatedly advocated over the years.

It would also help to establish more uniform standards industry-wide. Pay parity across supportive housing programs and settings with similar job titles (such as those in state agencies like the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, Office of Mental Health, or Office of Addiction Services and Supports) incentivizes recruitment for all programs and provides certainty to the workforce.

As has been continuously demonstrated, bonuses are also a clear way to attract and retain skilled workers. Facing an overwhelming shortage of healthcare staff, the 2023-24 state budget authorized funding bonuses for certain front-line healthcare and mental hygiene workers. These bonuses were paid in phases to employees who worked for at least six months. Because of inconsistencies with roles and job titles, some supportive housing staff were eligible for the Healthcare Workers Bonus, and some were not. A unified approach across the health and human services sector would pay dividends for supportive housing and could be partnered with student loan forgiveness packages.

However, higher wages are not the only adjustment needed. Partnering with colleges and universities to create student training programs has been a useful recruitment tool. The Schools of Social Work Project, run by the New York State Office of Mental Health (OMH), partners with social work schools and departments to give students real-world training in treating adults with Serious Mental Illness (SMI).

Due to its success, the program has expanded significantly, and this year will include mental health counseling services. Further growth into the supportive housing realm could be incredibly helpful in addressing the problem of inexperienced staff and could aid with recruitment once students graduate. Similar programs could be combined with internship programs and expanded to associate and bachelor’s degree programs. It would be important to ensure that programs like this do not exacerbate the current overworked staff and that student supervision falls under the school’s responsibility.

That will get workers in the door. To retain them, we need to provide opportunities to continue to build their skills and provide career roadmaps. Out-of-pocket costs for certificates and credentials in programs related to supportive housing create financial barriers to advancement, and setting aside funds to support staff receiving this education makes the field more equitable, increases employee satisfaction, and creates a better-trained staff ready to address the needs of the residents.

With the support of our membership and other external partnerships, the Network is taking steps to fill these gaps. One such solution is the Readying Emerging Leaders in Supportive Housing (RELISH) program, designed to support emerging Black leaders in nonprofit homeless and housing organizations with the management, leadership, and networking skills necessary for upward mobility paired with mentorship from senior-level Black leaders in supportive housing. Nonprofits help cover the costs. Programs like these are critical to addressing deep-seated systemic racism and sexism in the housing community and provide tenants – many of whom are women of color – with role models who might share, or at least be more familiar with, their lived experiences.

The Network will soon launch a supportive housing training academy in New York City with six professional trainings and skills development sessions focused on de-escalation and crisis mitigation and helping to build community and peer support among workers in the field. This professional development program can better equip staff for challenging work.

Of course, the Network’s program is only the beginning — others in the community need to provide further opportunities for continuous training, certification, and advancement through senior case management positions. These positions also must include increased pay and reward employees’ mastery of the job, or staff will continue to leave for higher pay and less stressful work environments. As it exists now, the only way to be promoted is to become a manager or director, which may increase burnout and retention issues or involve work that the housing staff is not interested in or does not have experience in.

Retaining supportive housing staff depends on a safe and supportive work environment. Connecting staff to free or low-cost therapy programs is one critical way to ensure they are supported consistently throughout the stresses of their position. This could be enabled by partnering with insurance companies, online mental health platforms, and service providers. Additionally, when they are faced with traumatic events, such as the death of a tenant, enabling rapid-response teams to provide emotional support can help staff process and integrate challenging feelings rather than burning out and leaving the field emotionally exhausted.

It is also important to note that workers and members often overlap in identities. Improving conditions with trauma-informed, race-conscious, and culturally responsive ideas should not only be applied to addressing issues for residents of supportive housing but for its employees as well.

Supportive housing providers have worked tirelessly to address the problems of workers and residents but cannot solve this challenge alone. Governor Hochul and the Legislature need to join our fight to ensure the most vulnerable New Yorkers receive the care and support they desperately need and deserve.

Pascale Leone, MPP, is Executive Director and Rebecca Zangen, MSc, is Chief Policy Officer of The Supportive Housing Network of NY.

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