Frontline workers play a key role in ending homelessness, but do they get enough support to do their jobs? Hub Solutions (a social enterprise embedded within the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness) conducted an evaluation which provides an answer to this and many other questions. More information on this evaluation and the full report can be found here.

In the first of a three-part blog series, frontline workers’ major challenges will be explored. This blog will also focus on how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges and created new ones for many frontline workers in this sector.

Who Works in the Homelessness Support Sector?

Based on our evaluation, the homelessness support sector has a high percentage of women who are frontline workers which is consistent with a recent profile of the homelessness support sector in Canada. Specifically, 81.6% of frontline workers in our sample identified as female, 15.7% identified as a visible minority; however, workers identifying as Indigenous were underrepresented in our sample (4.7%) compared to the earlier profile (10.6%). Workers were concentrated in Ontario (50.4%), and British Columbia (16.5%) predominantly in urban areas (65.9%). We also found that 20.0% of frontline workers identify as LGBQT2S+ and nearly one in four (23.0%) have lived experience of homelessness. The vast majority of frontline workers also possess some level of post-secondary education with 32.6% reporting a college diploma, 46.5% an undergraduate degree and 13.3% a graduate degree.

Complex Challenges for Complex Work

Earlier research demonstrated that while workers in this sector report that their work is both meaningful and rewarding it is not without major challenges. Post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout, and discrimination have all been highlighted as major challenges facing frontline workers. Issues with safety are also common in this sector given that frontline workers are frequently exposed to violence, aggressive behaviours, and sexual harassment in their roles.

Staff constantly deal with a scarcity of resources (e.g., financial, health, material, and training) leading them to take on multiple complex roles contributing to experiences of burnout and stress. This sector is also characterized by low wages, with one in ten workers classified as low-income. Opportunities for full-time and permanent employment are also limited. These challenges translate into high rates of employee turnover and low employee retention in the sector.

Ultimately, when frontline workers are burnt out, lacking resources, and feeling unsupported to effectively do their jobs, it negatively impacts people experiencing homelessness and housing instability. If we do not invest in the homelessness support sector workforce, staff will not be able to continue to meet the demands of service users, particularly as they become more complicated due to the pandemic.

COVID-19 Impacts

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened many of these challenges for frontline workers over the past 12 months. Outbreaks of COVID-19 are common among people experiencing homelessness, placing frontline workers at greater risk for contracting COVID-19 and a decline in physical health. Infection, prevention, and control measures have also been added to an already exhausting list of staff responsibilities.

Delivery of much needed services and supports from frontline workers to people experiencing homelessness has only become more challenging. With many organizations temporarily withdrawing services during the pandemic, frontline workers are struggling to meet the needs of their clients.

Moreover, 79.5% of workers serving people experiencing homelessness reported a decline in their mental health during the pandemic. The pandemic also increased financial challenges for many workers with 14.8% of service providers seeking assistance from the Canada Emergency Response Benefit.

Understanding the Needs of Frontline Workers

To better understand the needs of frontline staff and to identify opportunities to improve employment and workplace conditions in the sector, our research aimed to answer four key questions:

1. What are the key skills (e.g., technical, interpersonal, educational, lived experience, empathy, etc.) that are required to work in the homelessness support sector?

2. What is the magnitude of precarious employment, employee retention and turnover, and discrimination, experienced by frontline staff in the homelessness support sector, and how do these issues vary for people with lived experience of homelessness and individuals of different gender, Indigenous, and racial identities?

3. What existing resources and supports are in place and offered to workers in the homelessness support sector in Canada? Do existing resources and supports provided to employees vary across different groups or categories of employees in the sector?

4. What policies and regulations, sector standards, resources, and supports exist in the sector or are needed to protect workers, improve employment and workplace conditions, and meet the complex needs of frontline staff in the homelessness support sector in Canada? 

Stay tuned for part two in this blog series. In the next blog we will report key findings from the Hub Solutions evaluation related to the availability of COVID-19 benefits, materials, and training contributing to major safety concerns and mental strain among frontline workers, and as well as opportunities to improve working conditions for these employees.

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Funded by the Government of Canada through the Community Capacity and Innovation funding stream of Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy. The opinions and interpretations in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Government of Canada.