Homelessness is California’s most visible humanitarian crisis. I’ve dedicated my career to trying to solve it, however I can. But there’s a very obvious part of the problem that we haven’t addressed yet.
Fifteen years ago, I moved from Los Angeles to the Bay Area in pursuit of a safe and stable home. I now have a family of my own and a career I love at Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco, helping unhoused young people find the safe and stable housing that I, too, sought out.
As a survivor of the foster care system, I see this work as a calling. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that the frontline workforce responsible for housing unsheltered Californians and providing them with support services are being set up to fail.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Legislature and many others rely on us to address the state’s homelessness crisis, but these same officials have not provided our sector with stable or sufficient resources to sustain skilled and experienced staff.
I cannot afford to live in the community where I work. I have an arduous daily commute. I have childcare expenses that are unsustainable. Many of the folks I work with face even greater pressures.
In fact, despite the gains made by the frontline workers who unionized – and what organizations such as Larkin Street were able to accomplish with COVID relief funds – our sector remains plagued by low wages, few career ladders and high turnover rates that lead to chronic understaffing.
To make matters worse, service providers in the nonprofit sector have to compete with public sector service providers for inflexible and often insufficient resources.
All of this makes unhoused Californians more vulnerable, and none of this helps end homelessness.
Young people trying to escape the streets, for instance, commonly lose their outreach workers or case managers. A big part of my job is making sure my clients maintain the hope that they will one day receive housing, and that they will put their days of sleeping on the streets behind them. But when their case managers change every few months, or are stretched too thin by unsustainable case loads, many young people become cynical and feel trapped.
For too many young people without shelter, my team and I are the latest in a long string of strangers with whom they have to share their already existing trauma. They often disclose deeply personal stories about their sexual identity, painful family histories, experiences in a dysfunctional child welfare system, scars of human trafficking or chronic health challenges. The odds are already stacked against them.
In June, Governor Newsom approved a $308 billion state budget. It prioritized clearing encampments, and funding CARE Court, but it did not prioritize growing and strengthening the workforce serving unhoused people every single day.
Legislative committees are already holding budget hearings, and Newsom is drafting his proposal for 2023-24. Now is the time to address the challenges facing vulnerable workers on the frontlines of our most visible crisis and provide resources that lead to living wages, sustainable workloads, mental health supports and career ladders.
What I do is a privilege and an honor, but dedicated workers are underpaid and overworked. No organization on the ground is fully staffed, or can maintain it. If California leaders want to see more people exit homelessness and move into stable housing, then they need to make a real, sustained investment in our frontline workforce.
Anything short of this ensures that the humanitarian crisis unfolding on our streets will continue.
This article was originally published by CalMatters. Kenyaun Christie is the associate director at Larkin Street Youth Services, where he oversees the housing navigation team and transition age youth shelter program.