The alliance sent a letter to Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson, Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington and Clackamas County Chair Tootie Smith on Wednesday with their concerns. The letter was also signed by local service providers, business associations and community leaders.
In the letter, the business alliance says the low wages are hampering efforts to hire and retain frontline workers, which is also stalling efforts to address the homelessness crisis.
“We are deeply concerned that one major roadblock will stand in the way of urgent progress if not addressed. We must urgently address the ability of our service providers to hire and retain front line and support workers to do the tough and often heroic work of helping our homeless neighbors get the services they need. While there are many reasons for the staffing challenges with our service providers, we believe persistently low wages are the main culprit, which must be urgently diagnosed and addressed,” the Portland Business Alliance said in its letter to county leaders.
According to the PBA, the low wages are driven in part by homeless service funding roadblocks under their government contracts for services such as supportive housing, outreach, mental health and addiction services and job placement help.
“This puts those entrusted with managing their organizations’ finances in a precarious position to front payment for their staff with no certainty when they will be funded,” the alliance said. “If we do not ensure that they are able to pay living wages, and the employers do not receive prompt reimbursement to cover their costs, we will never offer the breadth and quality of services we must have to truly reduce homelessness in our community.”
The alliance also cites outdated and inefficient contracting protocols as another barrier for service workers, especially for small and culturally specific non-profits.
“It is our understanding that some service providers operate multiple contracts with the counties that calculate wages differently, putting many non-profits in a bind where they are forced to pay some employees less than others without additional subsidy,” PBA said.
The alliance added that “frontline workers are the backbone of our efforts to combat homelessness.”
“They are often people of color and/or individuals with lived experience of homelessness themselves who are making invaluable contributions in providing culturally sensitive and empathetic support to the most vulnerable members of our communities,” PBA stated. “However, despite the demanding nature of their roles, these essential workers are currently underpaid, leading to difficult recruiting efforts and high turnover rates that hinder our ability to effectively address the crisis.”
In response to the letter, Multnomah Chair Jessica Vega Pederson told KOIN 6 News addressing the homelessness crisis has been her top priority since taking office and pointed to her executive budget.
“Increasing wages for our contracted service providers who do the outreach work, connect people to service, and place people into housing is a critical piece of that. My executive budget includes a cost of living increase for our providers, but we need to see region-wide coordination in addressing this issue for our providers across jurisdictions,” her statement read. “I also initiated a work plan for the Joint Office of Homeless Services to improve our contracting in the coming year to support our partnerships, which are critical to the work. I am grateful that the Portland Business Alliance shares these priorities.”
KOIN 6 News is waiting for a response after reaching out to the Washington and Clackamas County chairs.