The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted people experiencing homelessness. While the pandemic has taken a toll on essential workers in every sector, the homelessness support sector has not received proper recognition for the work they continue to do to support this vulnerable population amid a global pandemic. This blog focuses on the distinct challenges faced by frontline workers in the homelessness support sector during COVID-19 and opportunities to address these challenges both during and post-pandemic.

These findings come from an evaluation conducted by Hub Solutions, a social enterprise embedded within the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH). Read the full report here.

Difficulty Accessing Staff Resources and Supports

In April 2021, one year since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a survey was distributed to frontline workers in the homelessness support sector across Canada. This survey revealed that:

  • 51.4% of all frontline staff are working more hours during the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Only 49.7% workers reportedly received pandemic pay in the past 12 months
  • 53.6% of workers have received training related to COVID-19 while 46.4% are continuing to work during the pandemic without COVID-19 training
  • 32.6% did not report that personal protective equipment was readily available to them, and
  • 38.3% of frontline staff in this sector are not given an appropriate amount of paid sick days that would allow them to self-isolate if they contracted COVID-19

Interviews with Executive Directors of homeless serving organizations elaborated on the impacts of the unequal distribution of pandemic pay, lack of COVID-19 resources and training, and increase in staff hours and responsibilities during the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, safety was a major concern for workers in this sector given that they cannot work from home and are in close contact with service users with COVID-19 or at higher risk of contracting the virus. These concerns were described by one Executive Director from Eastern Canada:

“We lost a third of our staff in four days. And so, some people had compromised health, some people lived with people with compromised health, and some people just said I'm not doing this… I'm not risking my life when people just didn't know what was happening.”

A disconnect was observed between the reality of the work that frontline staff have continued to do during the pandemic and the recognition of the necessity and importance of this work. Several Executive Directors described this lack of recognition given that their staff were not eligible for the pandemic pay other frontline workers received. One Executive Director in Western Canada commented on this disconnect:

“[During the pandemic] Access to services are gone and others [programs/places] are closed. We're the only two shelters – big shelters – in our city, we're able to take many people and cut out daytime programming so we’re really the only place open. That put a lot of strain on us to manage the whole shelter population… [However] we didn't qualify as essential workers. I know it came in for like grocery store workers but not for our staff.

Opportunities for Improving Working Conditions

Based on the evaluation findings, two key opportunities to improve the working conditions of frontline workers in the sector now and after the pandemic were identified.

First: homeless serving organizations should assess the adequacy and availability of training, physical resources, financial resources, and human resources related to COVID-19. Safety was a particular concern for frontline staff during the COVID-19 pandemic which translated into high rates of staff turnover during the pandemic. With this in mind, organizations should assess whether COVID-19 training and additional physical, financial, or human resources are needed by their staff as the pandemic continues.

The resources needed to protect staff and prevent the spread of COVID-19 are also applicable for other airborne/respiratory illnesses (e.g., influenza) that are common among people experiencing homelessness. Therefore, steps to meet these training, physical, financial, and human resources in the event of other disease outbreaks should be incorporated into organizations’ standard pandemic response plans.

Second: sustainable wage enhancements are needed for workers in this sector. Many frontline staff report that they are not paid adequately for the work that they do – this idea was reinforced by many Executive Directors. Future research can explore how sustainable wage enhancements can be implemented for frontline staff in the sector to improve employee retention and turnover.

The homelessness support sector is trying to manage the needs of their clients amid an affordable housing crisis. By adding on a global pandemic many homeless serving organizations are likely to face major staffing challenges if adequate training, resources, and supports are not available.

Stay tuned for the third and final part of this blog series that will focus on the needs of one specific group of workers in the sector: staff with lived experience of homelessness.

Note: This research was funded by the Government of Canada through the Community Capacity and Innovation funding stream of Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy.