May 13, 2022
The National Coalition for Housing Justice is committed to seeking housing justice in order to end homelessness. Pursuing housing justice includes supporting staff- many of whom are BIPOC and have lived experience of homelessness- who work on the front lines of our field with fair wages that can support living in safe and stable housing.
As a country, we severely undervalue what it takes to end homelessness and help people into safe and stable housing. In fact, direct homeless service is often viewed as charity that warrants a low pay because it should be done for the “greater good.” However, this work is performed by highly qualified and skilled professionals who are relentlessly trying to solve an issue that racist and harmful policies and practices created.
Underpaying frontline workers is a clear and concrete example of racial injustice and shows the disconnect we have as a field between publicly stating to uphold the values of racial equity and putting those values into practice. Economic justice is foundational to securing and keeping housing, and one tangible way to contribute to advancing racial justice is providing a livable wage, especially in direct service professions where a large majority of the employees are Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. We can’t say we are committed to ending homelessness and housing instability while contributing to it by not paying people a housing wage for their specialized skills and knowledge to do this work.
Nearly a year ago, Los Angeles Homeless Service Authority (LAHSA) Executive Director Heidi Marston made a decision to significantly increase the rate of pay for the lowest-paid staff at LAHSA in accordance with the organization’s equity goals and principles. Last month she announced her plan to step down and penned a letter detailing the circumstances that led to her resignation. At the heart of Ms. Marston’s decision to resign was the deep lack of support from the LAHSA Commission and some local homelessness providers for her executive action.
The undermining of Ms. Marston’s decision by the LAHSA Commission is in direct conflict with housing justice values and is a power play which maintains the status quo of white supremacy by denying equitable pay for the quality of life people deserve.
This issue isn’t isolated to LAHSA or the state of California. Entry, and even some mid-level homeless service staff across the country are drastically underpaid and overburdened and find it difficult to afford and maintain safe and stable housing, making them eligible for the same housing support and services they are delivering to those experiencing homelessness, ultimately feeding the cycle of homelessness.
The decision to raise wages and pay equitably often does not happen because of public or private funders’ demands or limitations, or because of a more structural problem in non-profits in the homeless services field: oftentimes leaders and the highest paid employees, and most members of the Board of Directors, are white or lack experiences of housing instability, so decisions to raise wages for entry-level, disproportionately BIPOC staff are subject to implicit and sometimes explicit bias of non-profit decision-makers.
This is a critique we are also grappling with as national organizations who believe in housing justice. We know it’s not enough to name injustices in housing and homelessness policies and practices and if we truly want to solve homelessness and dismantle racist systems, we must start by addressing this within our own internal practices. As organizations, we are actively doing the internal work to become pro-Black, pro-Indigenous, and anti-racist organizations. Join us in this principled struggle for pay equity in our field.