The Homeless Service Workforce: What We Know and What We Need to Learn
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Homeless service providers are tasked with helping people who are experiencing homelessness resolve complex problems. These providers face challenging work environments, often with little training or support. A new research article, “Building the Capacity of the Homeless Service Workforce,” offers recommendations on ways to understand, support, and develop the workforce.
Read the Special Issue on “The Future of Homeless Services” to learn more about workforce development in the homeless service field.
When you take your car to the shop to be repaired, you expect that your mechanic will be trained in how to fix cars. How would you feel if you found out that your mechanic is actually an English major with no formal training in auto mechanics? You probably wouldn’t have much confidence in him, right?
So, how can we ignore the training and professional development needs of the homeless service workforce and still expect them to succeed in solving the problems of people experiencing homelessness?
This is the question posed by the authors of “Building the Capacity of the Homeless Service Workforce.” It’s a new article published in the HRC Special Issue on “The Future of Homeless Services,” in the Open Health Services and Policy Journal. Authors Joan Mullen and Walter Leginski ask why we know so little about the homeless service workforce.
They assert that one of the most under-valued assets in our nation’s fight to end homelessness is the workforce. Homeless service providers are responsible for solving one of the most complex expressions of poverty in America. Yet little attention has been paid to providing the support and skills they need to succeed.
Mullen and Leginski’s research found that a large portion of the services provided to people experiencing homelessness is delivered by mainstream agencies with broader missions. The result is a paradox: People who are homeless are highly dependent on receiving services from agencies. Yet, many service providers are not necessarily experienced in delivering services to this special needs population.
In addition, targeted homeless service agencies often follow voluntary traditions where commitment is expected to compensate for lack of knowledge or professional training.
The article offers recommendations for building a workforce with the skills and knowledge to tackle the complex challenges of homelessness:
Determine the Size of the Workforce
The authors point out that trying to determine the size of the workforce is an exercise in creative accounting. Putting together several data sources, they speculate the workforce may number between 200,000 and 320,000 workers. However, they note an urgent need for more research to determine the size and characteristics of the workforce.
One recommendation is to collect workforce data via HUD’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). While HMIS would only include staff in programs receiving federal funds, it would be a good start.
Identify Core Competencies for the Homeless Service Workforce
What knowledge, skills, and attributes do homeless service workers need to bring to the job? No comprehensive efforts have been undertaken to identify core competencies applicable to the homeless service workforce. Identifying core competencies and skill standards is critical to develop training programs. These standards can help to establish what is required of workers to perform their jobs well.
Improve Training Opportunities
Many workers have little to no formal training or academic experience. Many agencies invest in on-the-job training, technical assistance, and conferences for staff members. However, it is not clear if agencies follow a systematic plan for upgrading the knowledge and skills of the workforce. Each agency independently puts together its own training offerings to staff. The result is a mix of ad hoc learning opportunities with no overarching efforts to give providers a solid foundation in best practices for homeless service delivery.
The authors identify a critical need for basic orientation to the world of homeless services. New hires in homeless services should be required to demonstrate basic proficiency in new models of service and evidence-based practices. Ideally, progress along a career path would be measured by professional certifications demonstrating that a level of knowledge or skill has been achieved.
Create Supportive Work Environments
It is very important to create strategies to recruit and retain workers. This includes management practices that create a supportive work environment and systematic efforts to help workers develop their professional careers.
Adequate compensation is essential to attract and retain qualified workers. Yet organizations with fixed budgets have few options for increasing wages. Improving benefits by subsidizing part or all of the cost of health insurance premiums is one alternative; a healthcare reimbursement arrangement is another. A survey of public health workers found that flexible schedules improve organizational resilience, lower absenteeism, and reduce employees’ desire to “job hop.”
Organizations fail to retain their workforce when they cannot offer opportunities for career advancement. Building career ladders involves defining occupational levels or steps linked to salary levels. Career ladders provide for advancement through defined steps, each of which represents the attainment of a higher level of responsibility and proficiency.
The authors recommend developing homeless service career ladders on a regional or statewide basis, given that the field consists of many small to medium size employers. Describing jobs across the field of homeless services would provide workers with a better sense of involvement in a profession where there are opportunities to grow.
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