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San Diego’s homelessness outreach workers are some of the most underpaid, study says

PATH lead outreach specialist Jayna Lee speaks last year to a man who was sleeping on the street in La Jolla.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

San Diego ranks 14th out of 18 cities in a study when it comes to pay as a percentage of a living wage.

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San Diego needs to boost pay for its frontline homeless services workers, according to a presentation by a city housing official at a recent conference put on by the Regional Task Force on Homelessness.

Lisa Jones, executive vice president of strategic initiatives for the San Diego Housing Commission, provided an early look at findings from a city-commissioned study, due to be released later this month, that examines compensation for homeless-services employees working under city of San Diego contracts.

The study determined that San Diego ranks 14th out of 18 cities — all selected for having a high cost of living — when it comes to pay as a percentage of a living wage. Its city-contracted homeless-services workers make, on average, 60 percent of the $75,705 needed to cover basic expenses such as housing, transportation, food and medical care, according to the study.

Jones said the study used the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s cost-of-living indicator and averaged the living wage across all household sizes to determine a living wage in San Diego.

Austin, Texas, which ranked first, compensates its homeless-services workers 83 percent of the city’s annual cost of living, according to the study. Four cities ranked worse than San Diego: New York‘s workers are paid 59 percent of its cost of living, while Boston, Miami and San Francisco each pay their homeless-services workers 57 percent, on average. Los Angeles pays 66 percent, the study says.

San Diego needs to boost pay to reduce vacancies, which stand at around 15 percent in the city, Jones said.

The study found that compensation ranges from $36,061 for a residential facility specialist to $54,273 for a substance abuse counselor.

“We are creating a significant inequity that exacerbates challenges,” Jones said.

The compensation study is part of a larger effort to recruit and retain workers as the city expands its outreach efforts. The city also has focused attention on self-care resources for homeless-services contractors, offering wellness events and peer support.

In an interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune earlier this year, Alejandro Pulido, an outreach worker with People Assisting the Homeless, or PATH, said low pay in a high-cost city means he has had to live with his in-laws.

Pulido said he has colleagues who are on a waiting list for subsidized housing.

“Most outreach workers live with roommates or have a shared living space,” he said.

As La Jollans get ready to celebrate the holidays at home — theirs or someone else’s — those who work for People Assisting the Homeless are reaching out to those whose homes are La Jolla’s sidewalks.

In Jones’ presentation, she emphasized the challenges that homeless-services workers face. She compared them to first responders because of the issues they address with their clients, who might be struggling with untreated illnesses or injuries, addiction or multiple traumas or could be experiencing a mental health crisis.

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria described homeless-services staff as performing “heroic work.”

It takes time to coax someone into housing. ‘Today’s no can be tomorrow’s yes.’

“It’s unheralded and often overlooked. It’s not extremely well-compensated. That’s a problem generally, but it’s exacerbated during these times we find ourselves in,” Gloria said in a recent interview.

Hanan Scrapper, PATH’s regional director, said her organization is working on an internal compensation study that should be completed by the end of the year. Plans are to follow it with organization-wide salary increases.

“We want to ensure our staff members aren’t on the brink of homelessness themselves,” Scrapper said. “We have long known that people in social services sectors are underpaid and often overworked.”

In the interim, PATH has added employee benefits to try to attract and retain staff, such as pet insurance and mental health resources, Scrapper said.

“On the policy side, we’re working with our government contractors and lawmakers to advocate for higher wages to be built into contracts,” Scrapper added. “We look forward to the city’s next steps in bringing higher wages to our essential workers.” ◆