As current ServiceNet shelter workers bargain for better wages, high turnover and staff burnout raise questions not just about the non-profit’s labor practices but how they serve the unhoused community
By R. Nicholas
In the week leading up to a February 19th bargaining session, the union representing shelter workers at ServiceNet (UAW Local 2322) reached out to the community, asking for witness support. Workers planned to bargain for higher wages at the non-profit which runs several shelters for unhoused residents in Western Massachusetts, including Northampton’s Grove Street Inn. The call for local witnesses was supported by Massachusetts Jobs with Justice, who promoted the open session, stating in an email sent out to their mailing list that ServiceNet workers were not only on the frontlines doing human service work during the COVID-19 pandemic but also caring “for our most vulnerable population — the elderly, those with developmental disabilities, our siblings, friends, and neighbors.” In return for this work, staff often make wages only cents above the state minimum, with shelter employees starting at $14/hour as of January 1st, 2021.
On the day of the bargaining session, however, ServiceNet management cancelled the virtual meeting, noting discomfort with the community invitation to what they believed should have been a private session. Management cited HIPAA violations, despite wages being the only issue brought to the table. “ServiceNet management refused to bargain with us (UAW 2322) on February 19th because we had brought several supporters from different unions and community organizations with us to witness their treatment of us,” said a ServiceNet staff member present for the bargaining session. Negotiations were rescheduled for Friday, February 26th, after management pressed the union for ground rules stipulating that no community members would be present.
Issues regarding wages and the shutdown of union negotiations are only a small piece of a tangle of complaints that The Shoestring received over months from former and current ServiceNet employees working in shelters and resource centers that serve the unhoused community. Workers reported lack of training, understaffing, burnout from long hours with low pay, and concerns about the treatment of the people the shelters were created to serve.The following reflects the accounts of numerous ServiceNet employees including those who were willing to go on record and more who chose to remain anonymous.
At the beginning of the pandemic, ServiceNet management agreed to give workers hazard pay, which included an increase of $2.40 an hour for regular hours worked and $3.60 an hour for overtime hours worked from March 13th to May 1st. According to UAW 2322 representative Naria Sealy who works with ServiceNet’s bargaining committee, this temporary raise was “not reflective of the risk direct care staff are putting themselves through, as there have been spikes and continued cases of COVID within their work places.” In many cases The Shoestring reviewed, regular, non-COVID raises added up to less than a dollar per year for most workers.
One former manager who requested anonymity (and will be referred to as “Alex”) worked at ServiceNet for more than four years, as both a counselor and a manager. Making a salary equivalent to roughly $17/hour, they were unable to be compensated extra for overtime or on-call hours. “The pay rate is obscene,” they wrote in an email to The Shoestring.
Ahalya Raman is a former shelter employee and former bargaining unit member who reached out to The Shoestring after putting in their resignation from a ServiceNet position at Northampton’s Shelter and Housing Department on December 27th, 2020. Raman confirmed the accounts shared by other workers regarding wages for shelter employees. They also commented on the seasonal exploitation of relief staff hired to work in the shelters during winter months and employees in their first three months of employment, neither of whom are eligible for union membership. While ServiceNet promises permanent positions to non-relief staff after their initial three months, multiple workers we spoke to stated that in many cases, employees would be working for months past this period without being offered permanency. Raman also lamented a lack of proper training for shelter staff, particularly as it pertained to harm reduction, racial sensitivity and conflict resolution.
According to ServiceNet’s Vice President of Community Relations, Amy Timmins, ServiceNet has a $75 million total budget. When asked about whether the non-profit would agree to UAW 2322’s request for higher wages, Timmins declined to comment, citing the potential to affect good faith negotiations at the bargaining table by involving the press.
HR FAILURE and SICK TIME
Workers shared complaints about their experiences trying to understand the organization’s policies or benefits through Human Resources (HR), including when it came to things as simple as getting health insurance through the company. Shelter staff brought stories about being sent the wrong paperwork to fill out, going weeks without responses from HR and even having to ration their medications due to high out of pocket costs while they waited for a reply. “In my opinion, shelter workers were largely ignored unless they pushed back on a policy that would create bad press or could pose a liability to ServiceNet,” Alex said.
Concerns were also raised about paid sick leave. Workers told The Shoestring they were unable to use their sick time if they needed or wanted to stay out of work to quarantine due to a positive COVID-19 case and had to take unpaid time off even if they had already used up their holiday and personal time.
In response Timmins stated, “sick time is available for employees’ use if they must quarantine when they are sick; and with ServiceNet’s liberal sick time policy, employees may accrue up to 720 hours of sick time. However, if they do run out of sick time, they may use other benefit time with the approval of their supervisor. If they are not sick but need to be out for quarantine or other reasons related to COVID-19, they may use vacation, holiday and/or personal time.”
However, according to ServiceNet’s staff policy guidelines, which were screenshotted and sent to The Shoestring, ServiceNet also encouraged employees to quit their positions and attempt to be rehired by the nonprofit down the line. “If [employees] have no remaining benefit time and still must be out due to COVID-19, you may choose to apply to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for unemployment. The state will determine if you are eligible; and if you are, they will pay 60% of your usual earnings,” states the policy, which was updated in December.
LACK OF HARM REDUCTION TRAINING
Multiple staff members cited issues with the organization’s approach to harm reduction in ServiceNet shelters and a need for better understanding from management about how to settle conflicts between guests as well as putting an emphasis on compassion for those struggling with substance use and mental health concerns beyond simply evicting or banning guests for various infractions.
Alex, the anonymous manager referenced above, explained how the training that staff received was inadequate to the task at hand. “Training was minimal. There were very little updates once I had been trained on ServiceNet policies, most of which focused on boundaries and not on building connection or capacity. No one trained me, or anyone for that matter, on trauma informed care or best shelter practices or how to support people using drugs or people escaping abuse. I don’t think myself or my staff were trained on trauma, harm reduction, non-violent communication, or racial sensitivity — unless we found a training outside the agency and were approved to attend, which, with the workload, was a serious challenge to find in the first place.”
Two shelter counselors echoed the particular need for more extensive training when so few employees are on shift at a time and the shelters each house between 16 and 21 guests, many of whom are dealing with trauma, substance use and mental health struggles and needed more attention than the staff was able to provide.
TREATMENT OF GUESTS
Every single worker The Shoestring spoke to noted that beyond the issues this posed for shelter staff, the insufficient training also greatly impacted the level of service and support that shelter guests received, particularly as more positions got cut and workers were asked to take on even more responsibilities at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. These issues became even more acute when many people found themselves displaced from their housing and seeking these services often for the very first time.
Describing ServiceNet’s shelters as “high-barrier,” one worker recounted a culture of shame and punishment regarding those struggling with substance abuse while staying in the buildings. While the shelters call their admission rules “behavior-based,” the truth for many guests has been far murkier. After placing sharps containers in the bathrooms, this worker read in the staff log notes that fellow staff members had started searching cracks in the bathroom floors and walls as well as the sharps containers themselves to “see if new needles were deposited and check against new guests and new behavior.”
The same worker explained that one Northampton shelter director wanted to schedule allotted smoke break times for all guests and otherwise keep them inside the shelter all day, meaning that if they wanted to leave, they could, but they would have to stay out till 4:30PM due to ServiceNet’s policy. This suggestion came after the director had made comments to staff convinced that people would “go out get high, or hide booze and drugs in bushes, and use them all the time” if guests were allowed to come and go as they pleased. When this employee made an argument against this in front of respected community members, the director backed down and shelter guests are now allowed to come in and out until curfew at 9:30pm.
When asked about harm reduction practices and whether ServiceNet’s approach to substance use in the shelters potentially affected whether those in need would turn to their services, Timmins stated that “for the safety of everyone in the shelter, our admission and operations policies are behavior-based. If someone is under the influence when they arrive, but the staff determines they present no danger to others, they will be admitted to the shelter.” Multiple workers contradicted Timmins’ account, suggesting that guests were regularly kicked out. ServiceNet’s web page regarding shelter rules is unclear, only saying that guests must commit to being drug and alcohol-free during their stay.
Timmins explained the policy, “It is important to us that we provide an environment for our guests that is safe from abuse or harassment. Once inside, guests are not allowed to use substances on site, except for medications that have been prescribed for them. This practice supports their own safety and that of other guests who are working to maintain their sobriety. Prospective guests who see these policies as too limiting may opt not to seek shelter with us.” Both Timmins and workers confirmed that Narcan is available on site, an important measure to take, but by no means constitutes a full attempt at a harm reduction approach.
One former unpaid volunteer, Anna Taylor, who worked from January to mid-February of 2021 “about six days a week for at least a couple hours at a time” at Northampton’s First Churches Cot Shelter, spoke to the shelter’s drug policies. “I don’t understand what is going on with the drug use policy there whatsoever,” she said. “I know there is drug use in the shelters, which I have pretty mixed feelings about because I don’t want anybody to be unhoused because of substance use. At the same time I think the way it’s being handled makes it very difficult for people trying to maintain their sobriety because they’re living in dorm-type situations with drug use happening in front of them.” While unable to name specifics, Taylor mentioned a program where guests could get a recovery coach and therapist, though this program was not directly integrated into the shelter specifically as far as she knew. “I did hear about a support group within the shelter but that was being operated by one of the guests themselves,” she said.
“There was, and is, a pervasive culture of assuming that guests are usually lying or trying to ‘get one over on you’,” Alex said. “Many of the staff that worked in the shelters when I started held very tightly to these beliefs and would express feeling abandoned if I did not agree to asking someone to leave the shelter for not complying to some of the guest rules. The rules were broken into two categories: rules you can get warnings for and rules you would be immediately asked to leave for. It was all so subjective because the staff were not adequately trained and there wasn’t a culture of goals, supervision, and growth.”
In 2018, the Western Mass Network to End Homelessness sponsored Iain De Jong’s event ‘How to Run an Awesome Shelter’ that taught staff how to practice trauma-informed care, implement harm reduction measures and create non-punitive expectations. By 2019, there was finally support to implement some of the changes outlined by De Jong’s presentation. Shelter workers were able to write ‘expectations’ rather than ‘rules’ that discouraged social control. Although it wasn’t enough, it felt like a victory to those involved, a step in the right direction.
Despite these steps, problems do remain. Another worker described management as “trigger happy with trespassing guests,” often banning people for life. “The population we serve is extremely vulnerable, and some are unable to maintain healthy relationships due to constant traumatization and retraumatization,” they explained. “They get tossed from service to service, until eventually they either make it out (usually with a lot of luck and support), or are just completely cut off from services.”
When one guest was unable to make it back in time for curfew due to being detained by the police, they were placed on the shelter’s waitlist, due to the shelter’s COVID-19 protocol. Employees then received a message from the boss asking why the guest had been returned to the waitlist. The boss explained that since this person had been detained by the police, the guest was now “banned for life.”
With ServiceNet running so many of the available local shelters, being barred from their services can prevent those in need not just from having a warm place to stay but from the social services needed to find permanent housing and support. When community members have been banned from these services or feel as though the lack of personal autonomy offered by high supervision isn’t worth the wait for a bed, it highlights a deep need for better funding, better staff training and an overall sense of human empathy.
ServiceNet employees described understaffing and high-turnover. “Some sites have only one worker scheduled for 8+ hour shifts,” one worker explained. “There are some sites where there is no office space, or staff space to take a break in, or to eat in (which is an issue during COVID, as we need to take our masks off to do so).” This was briefly an issue at the emergency shelter in Northampton as well, but involving a union representative, they were able to push for at least two workers during daytime shifts.
In an interview with The Shoestring, Taylor said that despite the organization’s goal of reducing houselessness, ServiceNet did play a role “putting people back out on the street.” Taylor told me that she “maybe saw one person, once, being helped with paperwork. I don’t mean that as the criticism of the staff that was there. There was very often only one person working there, someone in their mid-twenties, one person sitting at a desk taking temperatures, just doing basic maintenance. There’s not really anyone there to help, and they’re also doing the food and other things, there’s just no resources there for really helping.”
The lack of staffing was particularly apparent in the cuts that began at ServiceNet’s Northampton Resource Center on Center Street beginning in 2019. The center provided showers, laundry, mail services, caseworkers, and access to other resources.
“For most of my time at the shelter, the Resource Center was a place where someone who was houseless or at risk could come and get immediate services and speak to a caseworker about getting help with next steps. It was always incredibly busy every weekday morning with people in very serious situations,” Alex said.
However, by the time the 2019-2020 shelter season had arrived, the Resource Center had lost two out of five case workers, only one of which was exclusively at that location as opposed to splitting time with another center. “Management had always been expected to act as case workers (without training),” they continued, “so it wasn’t so strange at that time that less people were being asked to take on more. I assumed ServiceNet was just being slow at new hires. After the pandemic started, my supervisors let me know that there would be no new caseworkers. I was shocked. It was clear the numbers of people we would see would only get bigger, how could they not expand, or at least, bring back our original capacity? I was told it wasn’t in the budget.”
Alex told us that before leaving the organization, they had submitted two requests to hire more housing caseworkers and they were “silently denied without comment after a month. I sent emails about the unhygienic status of subsidized housing and desperate need for casework support — no response.” As the pandemic rolled on, they “lost a lot of the staff who came to the work with compassion, harm reduction experience, fluency in Spanish, and interest in accountability.”
Currently, the Resource Center is only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays, yet the pandemic has left more people needing services, stretching the staff capacity even more thin. While ServiceNet claims to use case management services “to help families find and secure permanent housing, and to develop the means to support themselves in a home of their own,” according to their website, it is hard to see how cutting these most necessary resources contributes to transitioning out of houselessness.
When questioned about the choice to cut Resource Center hours, Timmins explained that services had been primarily moved to the 24/7 shelter operation run out of Northampton’s First Churches, while the Center Street Resource Center is “consistently busiest on Tuesdays and Thursdays when our Healthcare for the Homeless provider is on site.” (Healthcare for the Homeless is an organization separate from but working with ServiceNet, which multiple shelter staff credited with advocating for the Center to stay open on the two days they assisted at the building.) “Our casework staff meets with people at the Resource Center when it’s open and at the shelter when it’s not,” said Timmins. “And the showers at the Resource Center are available to shelter guests when the Center is closed.”
Currently the one caseworker remaining at the Resource Center was scheduled to retire in January. According to information reviewed by The Shoestring, he isn’t taking on new cases, and a worker familiar with the situation has heard from former clients that these services are not available.
Alex ultimately left the organization. “I felt the need to leave ServiceNet because I was drowning in need and when I reached out to upper management for help, I was ignored.”
FIRED FOR HELPING A GUEST
When it comes to ServiceNet promoting a transitional approach to helping the unhoused community, Taylor spoke with The Shoestring over the phone about her short time at the Cot Shelter, where she chatted with guests and primarily served food delivered to the site by Manna Soup Kitchen, before being let go for helping a guest she had befriended.
“I think it’s about the fact that I made friends with individuals who were guests there and that I was willing to extend and help outside of the shelter. I think that was unacceptable [to ServiceNet], it was transgressing some boundary between the housed and the unhoused.” Taylor told The Shoestring that the director of the shelter explained to Taylor that she was a “liability.” She noted that she had to reach out to the director herself to confirm that she was no longer allowed to volunteer after hearing rumors from other staff in the shelter that she was about to be let go from her volunteer position. “It enforced the class boundaries of capitalism that that shelter is supposed to somewhat ameliorate,” she continued.
While careful not to share too many details about the specifics regarding the friend she helped (in order to maintain their privacy), Taylor repeatedly praised the shelter staff she worked alongside, emphasizing that they were not to blame for the systemic problems facing shelter guests. “The regular staff were really doing their best while underpaid and with no training. The only reason you would do that job under those conditions I think is because they cared, and they really care. But enforcing the rules the way they enforced them on me was preventing [unhoused] people from reaching out, preventing people from making the kind of connections that would help them. In this case, I think actual friendship is one of our safety nets. It shouldn’t have to be but given that there aren’t social safety nets, it is one of the ways that, certainly in my experience one of the things that has kept me safe is having a network of people, some of whom at many times have more resources than I do.”
The Shoestring has previously reported on the work that has grown out of the need for better services, including the community-led mutual aid organization Touch the Sky, which works with local organizers and the unhoused community directly to offer food, clothing, shelter and support. Many current and former ServiceNet workers also showed strong support for Manna Soup Kitchen and the new Manna-led warming center in the basement of Northampton’s St. John’s Episcopal Church. The center has capacity for 10 people, showers, wi-fi, a washer and dryer, warm place to rest and hopefully soon, a computer, according to Raman, who has helped with the set-up of the new facilities. Taylor is now a volunteer at the warming center.
At the end of the day, Alex said, “I think the greatest issue was that ServiceNet never showed interest in the quality or the growth of shelter services. It was always acknowledged in casual spaces that ServiceNet doesn’t care about the Shelter and Housing division because we couldn’t bill to insurance like their other programs. Which seems ridiculous — homelessness is traumatizing, why can’t we bill for trauma?”
R. Nicholas is a staff writer at The Shoestring.
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