SEATTLE – Joy Estill is a listener.
As the office manager at the St. Martin de Porres Shelter on Alaskan Way, she has kept her door open during the coronavirus pandemic to shelter residents who want to talk – though now, they wait outside her office to abide by social distancing guidelines. The men have case managers to help them get into housing or other social supports, but Estill is there to listen.
Since the pandemic began, Estill, 67, still goes to work five days a week. After a colleague fell ill from the virus, Estill kept coming in.
But some days are harder than others, like when one of the men, most of whom are over 55, gets sick or hurt. Estill already prays three to four times a day, but when that happens, “I go outside and kick some dust and pray some more,” she said. Sometimes she’ll close the door and cry.
When the pandemic started, those days began to happen more often.
People working in homeless services like Estill, part of a largely invisible, low-paid workforce, have been shouldering not just the burden of coronavirus in city shelters and services, but also a longer-running crisis the pandemic has only magnified over the past two months. As services have shut down and shelters have stopped taking in new clients to comply with social distancing rules, front-line homeless service providers have been witnessing suffering that, with fewer resources, they are too often unable to ease.
It takes a toll. In interviews with The Seattle Times, 20 homeless service workers described the stress of facing dual crises, lacking protective equipment and losing touch with clients as the pandemic forces distance in work where connection is key. Now, some worry the long-term effects of the pandemic could lead to traumatic stress among workers who will be expected to continue serving vulnerable people even after the outbreak fades.
“Working in the homelessness sector has always been an overwhelming, high-stress job,” said Ken Kraybill, a senior trainer at human services trainers and consultants C4 Innovations. “I think what’s happening is COVID itself and the pandemic that comes along with it is just a whole other layer of trauma.”
For Lauren Berry-Kagan, a shelter support staffer at the Miller Community Center, which opened in March to house residents from crowded shelters, stress comes in the form of trouble sleeping, headaches and a rash that Web MD first suggested was toxic shock syndrome.
What’s happening now, she said, are the same problems that plagued the homelessness system before but worse – it’s harder for people to seek employment, get IDs from closed government offices or move forward with finding housing.
“I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so stressed out, and I realized at least part of it is that there’s nothing to be done right now,” Berry-Kagan said.
“I see the ways that my guests are struggling, and there’s very, very little that I can do other than be a familiar face. That’s about it. That’s hard.”
A frayed safety net
YouthCare’s Orion Center shelter used to provide daytime drop-in services for homeless kids and young adults between the ages of 12 and 24 but has since closed its day center to most since the pandemic began. The young adults aged 18 to 24 who stay in the center’s overnight shelter largely have no other family or supports to turn to.
Orion Center case managers say they also worry about the kids who aren’t in their shelter right now – the youth they haven’t been able to bring inside because of the shelter-in-place model.
“We’re a safety net and support for them, and now we’re not available,” said Orion Center’s Charese Jones, senior program manager of engagement services. “It’s just so sad to have to do that. I’m just exhausted.”
Her coworker, Semone Andu, said the crisis has laid bare society’s biggest failures, particularly for the youth of color that make up the majority of the Orion Center’s residents and young people with mental health challenges.
“Our mental health system is broken,” Andu said. “When crisis hits … all of these broken systems get amplified, and you get to see all of it. It gets heavier on service providers.”
Jones and Andu feel they have a responsibility toward the young people they serve. The little wins, Jones said, keep her going.
“What I have in the back of my head is we can’t do everything,” Jones said. “So for the 25 people we do have and are helping, that’s a win.”
Jody Waits, YouthCare’s communications and development officer, said YouthCare is asking a lot of its employees right now.
“What does it mean to run with this adrenaline for this long?” Waits said. “We’ve run on the resilience and grit of very low-paid human service professionals doing overnight shifts. The lowest paid among us are doing the most.”
Last year, the Seattle City Council approved inflation-based increases in its human services contracts in order to address organizations’ concerns they were unable to hire and retain employees making so little. Many organizations have implemented hazard pay during the pandemic for workers on the front lines, but sometimes it isn’t enough, said David Helde, shelter case manager at the Downtown Emergency Service Center.
Helde, who makes $41,000 a year before taxes, said his job changed significantly when the pandemic hit. He went from working as a case manager with a 15-client caseload to helping operate a new shelter for existing clients at Seattle Center’s Exhibition Hall. His clients are now spread out at different locations, and his work with them paused.
The lack of progress for clients can be demoralizing and overwhelming, Helde said. Because of limited intakes during the pandemic, social workers like Helde also have to say “no” more frequently to people seeking services. Even before the pandemic, lack of these resources for clients contributed to the industry’s high burnout and turnover, Helde said.
“A huge number of my coworkers have expressed that overwhelmed feeling to me,” Helde said. “I know numerous people who have quit and searched for employment elsewhere, even knowing what the job market is like during all of this.”
In a month, the number of reported positive COVID-19 cases associated with King County homeless shelters and living facilities for formerly homeless people has nearly tripled, from 87 as of April 16 to 249 as of Monday. Seven people have died.
Homeless service providers have had issues sourcing personal protective equipment (PPE) for their staff: Shelters that don’t have a positive case of COVID-19 are considered “tier 4” on the state’s priority list for PPE.
“We were asking people to do really intimate work still without providing them those cautionary items,” Waits said.
But homeless shelters are also some of the few organizations hiring during the crisis. Organizations like DESC and Mary’s Place have been hiring on-call workers, many of whom were laid off from other jobs as a result of the pandemic.
Saunatina Sanchez, a DESC worker who started during the pandemic after she was laid off from SIFF Education, said she was glad to take a “crisis job” at a homeless shelter. She lives alone, so she wasn’t worried about getting anyone sick at home.
At the same time, Sanchez said working there has only strengthened her belief Seattle should tax large businesses to pay for affordable housing. Front-line workers need more support, too, she said.
“I’m really proud of the work I’m doing,” she said. “But it’s also very lonely.”
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