A man in a suit stands at a podium with a group of people standing behind him.
Mayor Bruce Harrell unveiled his administration's new homelessness data dashboard in front of Dockside, an affordable housing building set to open in Green Lake. (Credit: Seattle Channel)

Cops often earn triple the salaries of Seattle’s social service workers; pay inequity is undermining the city’s response to homelessness.

Seattle’s response to homelessness hinges on workers earning about $40,000 per year. Is it any wonder then that hundreds of positions remain unfilled, turnover is high, and the city’s dream of ending the homelessness crisis continues to be a fantasy? We’re simply not putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to ending the homelessness crisis. It’s time for that to change.

Mayor Bruce Harrell holds the key to solving this issue. When still a city councilmember, Harrell voted to pay homelessness service workers better wages, locking in inflationary adjustments. But the budget he proposed last month reneges on this commitment and trims the raises they were scheduled to make, thereby balancing the budget on the backs of those frontline workers. Not all agencies were asked to make such sacrifices. In fact, lateral hires at the Seattle Police Department (SPD) are in line for $30,000 bonuses, a sum nearly as large as an entire year’s salary for many social service providers.

Meanwhile, the trimmed raises to social service workers effectively amount to a pay cut in a time of steep inflation, advocates for homeless people have argued. This puts these workers at risk of falling into homelessness themselves. The National Low Income Housing Coalition calculates a worker would need to make about $39 an hour, or roughly $81,000 a year to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the Seattle metropolitan area. That’s double what many of Seattle’s contracted social service workers make.

“It’s unacceptable that workers working 24 hours a day with people in crisis are unstably housed themselves,” said Jessie Friedmann, director of public policy at YouthCare, which she said has a 70% staff turnover rate, the Seattle Times reported.

One common justification for high police officer wages often is that they face danger, risk their lives, and deal with stressful situations in the course of their job. Human service workers, however, may face similar dangers given the mental health issues facing a significant portion of their client base, and yet they are paid a fraction of what police officers make. The Seattle Times analyzed SPD compensation in 2019 and found median gross pay of $153,000 for sworn officers, with some pulling in much more than that, buoyed in part by back pay negotiated in their 2018 contract.

A shortage of social service providers is rarely if ever presented as a public emergency, but the mainstream pundit class is constantly fretting over police staffing levels and the difference between an eight-minute average response time for emergency calls and the supposed promised land of seven-minute response times. At the same time, crisis care assistance provided by social service providers can help to decrease the number of situations that can escalate into emergency calls responded to by police, and the more skilled and experienced a provider is, the better equipped they are to effectively serve their clients in these times of need. Maintaining such a workforce requires compensating these workers at a level that recognizes the value of the role they play.

Erica Barnett of Publicola was first to highlight the flipflop on the pay raises by Mayor Harrell, who had previously pledged to boost wages for social service providers even in times of recession.

“Three years ago, Harrell took the exact opposite position,” Barnett wrote. “In 2019, as council chair, he proposed and passed an amendment emphasizing not only that the money needed to go directly to ‘underpaid’ workers but that the city intended to provide full inflationary increases ‘in both periods of economic growth and in periods of economic hardship.'”

Barnett recounts that, introducing his amendment at a full council meeting that year, Harrell said, “Some of us have been around where we’ve had real tough times, [during] a recession. While we’ve had to make tough cuts, the work [human services providers] do is so critically important that we recognize we have to preserve if not even enhance the funding” during economic downturns.

As mayor, however, Harrell has backed away from that commitment, even with a city council that has signaled strong support for boosting social service providers’ pay. Teresa Mosqueda, who sponsored the 2019 law giving those human service workers higher wages and has served as council’s budget chair since 2020, has linked the issue of low wages to retention and recruitment issues.

The city cannot maintain a workforce of human service providers when “they themselves are qualifying for food assistance, and they themselves are living unhoused in our city because they are so underpaid,” Mosqueda said per the Seattle Times.

The Downtown Emergency Service Center (DESC) has 193 open positions on its website, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) has 95 openings, and Catholic Charity Services has 86, the Seattle Times reported, noting not all of these positions are funded by the City of Seattle and thus would not be impacted by a change to raises.

This is a staffing crisis that will surely hinder the city’s response to homelessness. If Seattle were building a social safety net actually intended to end this crisis from scratch, is this how we would do it?

Contracting out for frontline social service workers obscures many issues, from low pay to the tenuousness of Seattle’s social safety net.

Mayor Harrell’s budget director Julie Dingley told the council budget committee that the caps on service worker wage increases would save $7.15 million this year and $12.12 million the following year. Considering the cost to the city’s homelessness response, those budget cuts are pennywise and pound foolish, however.

During his campaign, Mayor Harrell promised to build 2,000 units of supportive housing for homeless individuals during his first year in office. The Urbanist has reported that Harrell is behind on meeting that pledge. The Mayor has said his 2023 budget will get the City to 2000 units, but besides being late to meet his promise, the staffing crisis of service providers calls into question whether those units will truly be supportive and able to offer the wrap-around services that help pull people out of the cycle of homelessness.

During this time of crisis, it’s better to hold firm to early commitments to ramp up social service provider pay to a living wage — plus, provide ample supportive housing to people experiencing homelessness under the housing first model. Paying poverty wages won’t bring the crisis to an end.

The Urbanist’s Editorial Board consists of Doug Trumm, Natalie Bicknell Argerious, Ryan Packer, and Ray Dubicki. Members Stephen Fesler and Shaun Kuo abstained from participation in this editorial.

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The Urbanist was founded in 2014 to examine and influence urban policies. We believe cities provide unique opportunities for addressing many of the most challenging social, environmental, and economic problems. We serve as a resource for promoting and disseminating ideas, creating community, increasing political participation, and improving the places we live.