WA Homeless Services Workers Benefit has provided $10.7m so far

The problem of burnout and high turnover predates the pandemic. But COVID-19 amplified the challenges as shelters closed, counselors had to meet with clients via video chat, and isolation increased clients’ mental health and addiction issues.

This is part of a series updating our readers on some of our best stories from the past year.

Recognizing the struggles of the sector’s workforce and the fact that Washington cannot solve its ongoing homelessness crisis without a fully staffed response system, the state legislature has created a program of stipend using federal pandemic relief money that provides workers with two rounds of payments of up to $2,000.

The stipends are meant to provide short-term relief to homeless service workers whose wages are often low enough to qualify them for the same safety net programs their clients use, such as food stamps. The Legislature is also funding a study that will examine ways to make careers in the sector more sustainable in addition to increasing wages.

Crosscut reported on the program when it launched in late September. With a key deadline for the program coming this week, it’s a good time to come back. Workers had to get approval for their first allowance by December 22 in order to qualify in time for the second round of allowances. Although the deadline for obtaining two allowances has passed, workers still have until June 2, 2023 to apply for a single allowance.

So far, 11,356 homeless service workers across the state have applied for relief payments. FORWARD, the company that contracted with the state Department of Commerce to handle applications and disburse funds, has paid workers $10,771,500 and plans to withdraw another $8,000,000 before the end of the year. FORWARD expects to distribute all of the $51 million in available allocations by the end of the program on June 30.

Ashleigh Desvigne is the lead family advocate for YWCA Seattle King Snohomish’s Reunite Project, which provides supportive housing and classes for homeless and drug-addicted parents to stabilize and reunite them with their children. After five and a half years at the YWCA and a decade in the homeless service industry, she earns $25.50 an hour, or about $53,000 a year.

Desvigne has just received confirmation that his application for the allowance has been approved on Monday of this week and that the check will be mailed in the next two weeks.

“It will get me a big toe out of the black hole of debt for a minute,” Desvigne said. “I’m looking forward to being able to take care of a few bills that are way overdue.”

She lamented that the money didn’t arrive in time to buy Christmas presents for her kids this year, but continued, “It’s cool that it helps the new year start off on a better footing.”

Desvigne told Crosscut that she found the application process a bit frustrating. Although she heard through the grapevine that other people were getting their checks immediately, her application, along with those of several of her colleagues, had a “pending” status for nearly two months. She worried that something had gone wrong with her application or that she had made a mistake. When she was finally able to get in touch with a program representative, Desvigne was simply told to keep an eye on the status of her application. It was stressful to think she might miss the allowance she so badly needed, she said.

Raven McShane, senior director of FORWARD, said the company is doing its best to strike a balance between getting the money out quickly and ensuring that only those who meet the eligibility requirements receive the benefits.

“I appreciate the frustration. … There are so many people in need and it’s so important to make sure the people who qualify for the money actually get it,” McShane said. our fraud processes while assuming the best intention of those applying to the program.”

Of the nearly 11,400 people who have applied for relief funds so far, just over 9,000 have been found eligible to receive funds. McShane said applicants are most often rejected for earning more than 80% of their regional median income. Allowances are only available to those earning 80% or less.

“When I did the stipend program last year, we knew it was the start of a conversation to learn more about the extent of need,” said state Rep. Nicole Macri, D-Seattle, who sponsored the stipend program legislation. “It was intended to signal to the workers [that] we hear you and understand the financial difficulties you are facing and your commitment to this work.

Macri, who is also the deputy director of the nonprofit Downtown Emergency Services Center for Seattle Housing and Services, said one of her priorities for the 2023 legislative session is to try to secure permanent increases in state contracts for homeless service providers.

Gov. Jay Inslee has already proposed a 5% increase in the homeless services contract in his 2023-25 ​​budget, which will cost about $6.3 million. Macri praised Inslee for including more money for vendors, but said the increase still fell short of the occasion. She wants to make sure that those contract increases are at least in line with inflation.

Michele Thomas, policy director for the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, said she would lobby the legislature to at least double Inslee’s proposed contract increase and make it permanent.

“It’s essential that it’s permanent because that’s what gives organizations the ability to raise salaries,” she said. “Not a one-time bump, but something they can budget against [on an ongoing basis].”

The push for more investment in homeless service workers comes at a difficult time for homelessness and housing funding, despite projections of an overall state budget surplus. Almost all homeless service grants at the Washington state level are paid for through a surcharge that residents pay when filing paperwork related to mortgage origination and refinancing, among other things.

Document registration fees are currently generating less revenue than expected, largely due to the slowdown in the housing market. Higher mortgage interest rates mean higher monthly payments for buyers, which means fewer people are buying right now. Fewer home sales result in fewer registration fee payments to fund homeless service contracts.

Inslee’s budget proposal would redirect $40 million from the state’s general fund to address the registration fee shortfall. Proponents worry that closing the gap is not enough, much less permanently raising the wages of service workers.

There is nothing Washington and its cities need to improve on to address the homelessness and affordable housing crisis. Cities and counties need more affordable housing, more space in shelters, and more resources for mental health and addiction treatment. But for Macri, the essential guideline is a workforce with sustainable wages and workloads.

“For our neighbors who are hurting and our communities who are affected… we cannot slow down our efforts to increase housing for low-income people, to increase opportunities to bring people back in and shelter them. But we can only do that if we adequately support the workforce,” Macri said.

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