Forget bed space. There is another problem plaguing Utah’s homeless shelters.

Would you work at a homeless shelter? Not enough people are saying yes.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jack Bushway and Keegan Kaylkanan work as case managers at the Pamela Atkinson Resource Center in South Salt Lake, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023.

It’s a familiar line in news stories.

Homeless service providers, inundated with increased demand for programs and shelters, are struggling to hire — and keep — enough workers on board to meet that need.

“It’s a real problem in the system right now,” state homelessness coordinator Wayne Niederhauser said, “because what we need is a consistent workforce to really break through these barriers that the unsheltered and those in our shelters have.”

Staffing issues have persistently plagued social services, but overcoming that challenge — and securing the money that’s needed to do so — has proved and remains tricky.

Niederhauser said it’s ultimately up to service providers to see that they are fully staffed.

Michelle Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, said the community as a whole plays a vital role in securing the funding — for staffing and beyond — at the Wasatch Front’s three primary homeless shelters.

Meeting the growing demand for homeless services depends on bolstering the workforce in the Beehive State’s system. In short, the shelters need staff in order to do their stuff.

That equation seems simple enough, but Utah officials have yet to come up with an answer.

While shelter work can be rewarding, it can also be draining and demoralizing. In recent years, providers have seen turnover rates soar in some cases to nearly 200%. And the $18 to $22 an hour they offer front-line workers is a tough sell when there are less laborious, more lucrative jobs available.

How staffing affects the system

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amela Dzafi works as a case manager at the Pamela Atkinson Resource Center in South Salt Lake, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023.

Karissa Guthrie spent 2½ years as a case manager for The Road Home working at the Midvale family shelter, where she estimates she worked with upward of 30 families at a time.

“It made it really difficult,” she said, “to make sure that I was addressing everyone, and I was making sure that no one was falling through the cracks.”

An ideal caseload would have been closer to 10 families, Guthrie said, giving workers enough time to “get down in the trenches.”

Niederhauser said the system counts on workers like Guthrie to build trust with those who require services. Without a consistent workforce, he said, it’s harder to usher unhoused Utahns along the path to help.

Despite the clogged caseload, Guthrie, now the nonprofit’s community relations coordinator, said the work proved important enough to stick it out to the point of becoming a supervisor for case managers.

“I stick with it because my passion is to help people,” she said. “I would sit there and think, ‘I may be the only person today that they may have a positive interaction with or can help them just one step closer to being housed. No one should be experiencing homelessness.’”

Staffing shortages affect more than case managers, of course. They also squeeze positions across the board as providers scramble to attract and retain front-line shelter workers.

Those problems are magnified when providers need to hire chunks of new employees, such as in the lead-up to winter, when the capacity of homeless resource centers expands to accommodate additional beds in the chilliest months.

Last year, a dearth of workers prevented at least one resource center — the Geraldine E. King Women’s Resource Center in Salt Lake City — from expanding to its allowable capacity by at least mid-December, when demand spiked amid a cold snap.

Not only is it difficult to attract applicants to homeless services jobs, Niederhauser said, but it is also hard to retain them.

“As soon as they find something that pays them more, because they have a self-interest in getting housing and providing transportation and all the necessities of life,” he said, “they’re going to be taking that.”

What led to staffing shortages?

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tristan Cholico and Tristin Ospina at the Pamela Atkinson Resource Center in South Salt Lake, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023.

The bottom line, according to Niederhauser, is that service providers need more revenue to raise wages and plug staffing holes. Factors that have contributed to those funding gaps, he has said, are rooted in Utah’s shift in how it deals with homelessness.

As the state moved away from a centralized shelter in Salt Lake City’s Rio Grande area to a dispersed shelter model that spans Utah’s capital and neighboring South Salt Lake, the system became more expensive. To make up for the extra cost, case management was pared down.

That trade-off, Niederhauser said, in tandem with an evolving job market that has required higher wages, has fueled the staffing woes.

Flynn, executive director of The Road Home, which operates two resource centers for adults and a family resource center, said she supports the new model but noted it was never fully funded.

The buildings are larger, require more workers, house fewer individuals than the old Rio Grande shelter, and are more expensive.

While the old shelter was The Road Home’s responsibility to fund and operate, Flynn said, the new resource centers need to be the entire community’s responsibility.

“It can’t,” she said, “be just the responsibility of the operators.”

Niederhauser has pointed to the pitfalls of a pay disparity between caseworkers here and those in neighboring Nevada.

“When we have front-line workers that can’t even afford their own housing,” he said, “we’re struggling with that.”

While workers in Utah earn about $22 an hour on average, he said, employees working similar jobs in Reno make upward of $32 an hour. (Those Nevada wages, he noted, were bolstered by the use of federal COVID-19 relief dollars.)

Flynn said if leaders want to see workers making as much in the Beehive State as they do in the Silver State, then the government could dish out the cash to help make that happen.

“Something that could help us pay those kinds of wages,” Flynn said, “was that our government entities that do provide some of that funding — so the state and the county, specifically, would be good ones — that they would have the same kind of approach in terms of ensuring that the funds that they are providing are sufficient to pay those wages.”

State office to seek additional funding

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cole Farrior and Madison Bost at the Pamela Atkinson Resource Center in South Salt Lake, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023.

Salaries and benefits for The Road Home’s 300-plus employees run about $16.3 million. Government grants cover $8.7 million of that, with private donations from individuals, foundations and corporations paying the rest.

While The Road Home’s donor network is robust, Flynn said, philanthropists are not immune to the effects of rising costs.

“The people that support us are also facing those increased expenses in the community,” she said. “We can’t anticipate significant increases in private donations, as we know our donors are also struggling financially.”

Niederhauser said the state kicks in $25 million annually to homeless service providers, and in the coming 2024 session, he intends to ask for more as additional beds come on line and inflation hikes the cost of labor.

While Niederhauser said staffing levels have worsened in the two years he’s been on the job, Flynn and Trevor Hudspeth, a recruiter for the nonprofit Volunteers of America Utah, said they’ve seen improvements.

Hudspeth, whose organization runs the women’s resource center in Utah’s capital, said VOA has upped wages significantly, and turnover is down from previous years for jobs he acknowledges are emotionally and physically taxing.

“We’ve done a good job hustling and scrapping,” he said, “to get people who are qualified and who want to do the work.”

For her part, Flynn said The Road Home has raised pay and is trying to amplify the importance of its workforce.

“Our staff are the heart of our agency,” she said. “They’re the heart of this work of providing this crisis support network in our community. We need to compensate them, and we need to fully staff our programs so that we’re here when people need that crisis help, and I don’t see that need lessening in the near future.”

After all, Utah’s shelters have the beds. But it’s the people who bring the heart.