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Homeless services are challenged by Utah’s tight labor market

The Geraldine E. King Women’s Center is a homeless resource center in Salt Lake City District 4, March 23, 2022.
Emily Means
The Geraldine E. King Women’s Center is a homeless resource center in Salt Lake City District 4, March 23, 2022.

As unemployment in Utah remains near 2%, staffing is a challenge for all sectors in the state. But it’s especially difficult for organizations serving Utah’s most vulnerable populations.

“In the human services field, really, we feel like we've been hit pretty hard,” said Amanda Christensen, division director of adult homeless services for Volunteers of America, Utah.

Christensen said there are currently 17 full-time positions open for housing advocates at the Geraldine E. King Women's Resource Center in Salt Lake City, which is run by VOA Utah. Duties include manning the front desk, enrolling clients in the center’s program and helping to set up winter overflow space in the facility.

Ten of the positions are focused on overflow needs from November through mid-April. Christensen said if those employees wish to stay on after the season, VOA Utah will work to find other positions within the organization for them.

The struggle to hire coincides with a rise in homelessness in Utah. According to a report from the Utah Department of Workforce Services, more than 7,700 Utahns experienced homelessness for the first time in 2021 — a 14% increase over 2020.

Services to those people will be impacted as shelters are understaffed.

“It's going to take us longer to be able to help the people that we need to help,” Christensen said. “It's critical that we get staff in here so that we can really help and work with these clients.”

As applications have been slow to come, Christensen said they’ve had to be creative in their outreach. VOA Utah has been using paid advertising to raise awareness of the vacancies, something they’ve never had to do before.

Even when positions are filled, they don’t always stay that way for long. Some employees are soon lured away by other opportunities.

“We still are kind of perpetually needing to hire,” she said.

These issues are not unique to the King Resource Center but affect homeless services throughout the state.

“One of the major challenges of providing winter overflow is staffing,” the Utah Department of Workforce Services said in a Sept. 9 press release.

“Especially with the tight labor market, the Office of Homeless Services is asking all of those who may be interested in full- or part-time work and in serving their community to reach out to the homeless service providers about employment opportunities.”

Adjacent services are also feeling the pinch. Christensen said VOA Utah currently has 44 openings across the organization, including positions in street outreach and detox programs.

“Pretty much every single program that Volunteers of America operates has positions that we're currently hiring for,” she said.

Christensen said part of the challenge may be that prospective applicants feel intimidated by the nature of the work. Some may feel unqualified to work with vulnerable populations.

“We can help train and get you to where you need to be to feel comfortable engaging with these vulnerable folks that we work with,” she said.

“We're really looking at individuals who are compassionate.”

Rob is a native of Salt Lake City and is happy to be back home and enjoying “one of the best backyards in the world” again.
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