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Who Are We? A Look at the Homelessness Workforce
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How many people compose the homeless services workforce? What are the characteristics of these workers? In this feature, the HRC shares estimates of the size of the homeless services workforce and describes the jobs, credentials and skills of these workers.
Who Are We? A Look at the Homelessness Workforce

Who are the people working in homeless services? Research documents the numbers and characteristics of people who are homeless, but who is counting the people providing the services?

Without efforts to support, train, and retain those working in homeless services, any strategy for ending homelessness fails to include a critical ingredient for success. We need to understand how to support the people who are actually responsible for finding, housing, and serving those who live without homes.

To begin these efforts, we need to know who the providers are. However, the last time the workforce was surveyed was in 1996 -- thirteen years ago.

Using estimation and drawing on multiple data sources, the HRC sought to get a picture of the current workforce, asking: how many workers are there, what are their credentials and skills, where do they work, and in what jobs?  While we can only answer these questions with estimates, it is a starting point for future efforts to strengthen the professional identity and skills of providers.

Where do homeless service staffs work? There are two clusters of homeless service settings: programs targeted specifically to homeless individuals and mainstream programs that serve various populations including people who are homeless.

Targeted Homeless Service Programs. A 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC) provided the first national description of homeless service programs. The study estimated that 40,000 programs were operating across the nation including 10,090 housing programs. Since this survey was completed, the country has experienced a depressed economy, high rates of foreclosures, and returning veterans in need of assistance.  By 2007, a HUD report to Congress identified a total of 19,500 housing programs—nearly double the 1996 estimate.

Mainstream Agencies Serving Homeless Clients. Less is known about other providers of homeless services. Social service agencies, family welfare organizations, school systems, faith-based programs, behavioral health organizations, and a host of charitable and philanthropic efforts are critical partners.  Expert informants indicate that 50% to 75% of the services provided to homeless populations are delivered by mainstream agencies with broader missions.

How many people are employed in homeless services? We can only speculate how many people are employed nationally in the nine job categories identified by the HRC. In a 1994 survey of 1,619 family shelters, about a third had fewer than 4 staff members, another third had four to ten, and the final third 11 or more. If we apply these percentages to the 16,000 housing and shelter facilities projected by the NSHAPC survey, we obtain a workforce of approximately 130,000. Of course, shelter and housing are only part of the array of homeless services.  If we count three staff in each of the remaining 24,100 programs in the NSHAPC survey, we add 72,300 positions, bringing the total to over 200,000 workers.

Surveys done by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also align with this number.  In 2006, BLS estimated a workforce of 129,000 in a sector called “community food and housing, and emergency and other relief services”. Since these are non-government programs, we need to add the staff employed in the 14% of programs operated by the government. Applying staff patterns reported by BLS to these programs adds another 69,000 positions, bringing the total to 198,000, very close to our previous estimate of 200,000.

Since the BLS report only counts 9,000 in its community food and housing sector and the NSHAPC counts 19,500 facilities and programs, we could easily double the BLS employment count, bringing the total to 320,000.  In short, by these informed guesstimates, we find a range of 202,300 to 320,000 workers in homeless services.
All of this is, of course, highly speculative and cries out for more systematic information on the size and composition of the workforce.  States and localities have an important role in filling this information gap.  In addition to counting the number of people who are homeless in their areas at a given point in time, future surveys could assess the resources available to provide housing and services.  This would include the numbers of programs and beds, as well as the numbers, types, and training of the staff who provide services.

What jobs are represented in the workforce? The HRC has identified nine primary job clusters based on field experience and numerous discussions, focus groups, and workshops with other local and national experts:

Executive Leaders
Positions: Executive directors, deputy directors, accountant/chief financial officers, development directors and positions focused on organizational leadership, management, finances, daily operations, and board and community liaison.   
Education/Experience: Bachelor and advanced degrees

Clinical and Program Managers   
Positions: Shelter managers, residence managers, clinical directors and managers, program managers and team leaders.   
Education/Experience: Mixed: little to none; on-job training; bachelors and advanced degrees

Independent Living Specialists   
Positions: Property managers, housing search specialists, benefits specialists or coordinators and employment/workforce development specialists   
Education/Experience: Mixed: little to none; on-job training; no higher than bachelors

Substance Abuse Counselors and Prevention Specialists   
Positions: Substance abuse counselors or licensed drug and alcohol abuse counselors and prevention specialists.   
Education/Experience: Specific degrees, certification and/or licensing in substance abuse prevention and treatment

Medical Professionals   
Positions: Physicians (MD), podiatrists (DPM), registered nurses (RN), and dentists (DDS or DMD), support staff for these professionals such as physician assistants (PA), medical assistants (MA), licensed practical nurses (LPN), dental assistants and hygienists, and other certified specialists.   
Education/Experience: Advanced degrees

Mental Health Professionals   
Positions: Psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health counselors, psychotherapists, psychiatric/-mental health clinical nurse specialists and practitioners, art therapists, and mental health workers   
Education/Experience: Mixed: high school and GED diplomas to advanced degrees and licenses

Case Managers   
Positions: Supportive housing and housing coordinators or specialists; housing, mental health, family and general case managers; case workers and social workers   
Education/Experience: Generally a bachelors degree or higher; varies substantially across settings

Cross System Professionals   
Positions: Community health workers or health educators, HIV case managers, harm reduction specialists, and boundary spanners or systems coordinators   
Education/Experience: Mixed: little to none; on-job training; bachelors and advanced degrees

Residence-Based and Non-Residential Frontline Direct Support Staff   
Positions: Shelter assistants and workers, security guards, overnight or house managers, residential support specialists, peer educators or peer support specialists, client or family advocates, psychosocial rehabilitation specialists, drop-in center staff, outreach workers, studio assistants, and volunteers   
Education/Experience: Mixed: little to none; on-job training; typically no higher than bachelors degree

Only when we know where we now stand can we begin to develop a workforce able to succeed in preventing and ending homelessness.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2001). National survey of homeless assistance providers and clients (NSHAPC). Retrieved on August 18, 2007 from

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). (2007). The Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.  Washington, DC: Office of Community Planning and Development.
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