Abstract: COVID-19 Gains and Losses within the Homeless Service Sector: What Matters to the Workforce (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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COVID-19 Gains and Losses within the Homeless Service Sector: What Matters to the Workforce

Friday, January 13, 2023
North Mountain, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Jordan Goodwin, LSW, MDiv, Graduate Research Assistant, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Emmy Tiderington, PhD, Assistant Professor, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Sean Kid, PhD, Senior Scientist, University of Toronto, ON, Canada
John Ecker, PhD, Director of Research and Evaluation, York University, ON, Canada
Nick Kerman, PhD, Project Scientist, University of Toronto, ON, Canada
Background and Purpose

The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented global health crisis that has had devastating effects on marginalized groups around the world, including people experiencing homelessness. Enduring the pandemic alongside people experiencing homelessness are the individuals who serve them. This sizeable workforce has been largely overlooked in pandemic-related social policy. This omission has the potential to undermine post-pandemic efforts to prevent and end homelessness. Accordingly, it is beneficial to understand the pandemic’s impacts on service providers working with the homeless population and how these experiences shape their support needs throughout and following the pandemic.

The objective of this qualitative study was to explore the perceived impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the lives and work experiences of service providers in the homeless, housing, and harm reduction service sectors in Canada. The primary research question was: How do service providers experience changes in the workplace due to the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to their occupational values?


This qualitative study involved interviews with a stratified purposive sample of 30 direct service providers who worked in homeless service, supportive housing, and harm reduction sectors across Canada. An additional 10 service providers in leadership roles (e.g., organizational directors, program managers) were also recruited to participate in an in-depth interview to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted organizations and workers more broadly. Qualitative data from the study sample (N=40) were analyzed using reflexive thematic analysis with iterative processes (Braun & Clarke, 2006).


Service providers experienced significant occupational changes during the pandemic, most of which did not align with their occupational values. A range of existing structural and organizational problems were exacerbated by the pandemic – “losses” during the pandemic. In contrast, the pandemic led to an increased recognition of the mental health needs of providers – a “gain” from the pandemic. Findings consisted of five themes, and their associated occupational values for service providers: [1] Work role and responsibility instability; [2] Challenges to working relationships with service users; [3] Transitions to impersonal and isolating workspaces; [4] Lack of organizational support and hierarchical conflict; and [5] Positive organizational support and communication. Overall, study findings highlight the importance of attending to the needs and preferences of service providers and integrating providers’ perspectives when developing and implementing policies and procedures, which can promote providers’ occupational values for agency and control over their work environment. The inclusion of service providers in capacity- and partnership-building initiatives with other community organizations may present opportunities to enact their occupational values for teamwork and collaboration through systems change.

Conclusions and Implications

Findings underscored key occupational values held by service providers that can be targeted in pandemic recovery approaches to improve service delivery and organizational operations for both staff and service users. Future research is needed to identify how service models and organizational approaches grounded in safety, collaboration, inclusion, openness, and equity, among other occupational values, can foster supportive workplaces for service providers and improve outcomes for people experiencing homelessness.