Using Data to Measure Results: a Rural Community Profile

Clallam County, Washington, is located on the northernmost point of the Olympic Peninsula, three hours away from Seattle, Washington (via ferry) and isolated from the interstate grid. Many residents in Clallam County have experienced chronic, intergenerational poverty. Unemployment above 11% is not atypical. Forks, located in Clallam County, has been identified as the most remote city in the lower 48 states with a population of roughly 3,000. The largest town, Port Angeles, has roughly 20,000 residents.

Despite persistent poverty, Clallam County has emerged as a leader in housing those in their county with clear results: since 2004, they have achieved a 40% reduction in homelessness. In 2006, their Point in Time (PIT) Count identified 1,055 people experiencing homelessness. In 2011, that number was 592. These results have been sustained in part because of a strong collaborative network of providers and a commitment to data and accountability.

USICH spoke with Kathy Wahto, the Executive Director of Serenity House in Port Angeles, WA. Serenity House is the lead agency in the Shelter Providers Network, a collaboration of agencies providing shelter, housing, social services, and treatment for individuals at-risk of or experiencing homelessness that has been meeting regularly since 1989. The collaboration became the formalized Continuum of Care in 2000, and has since been responsible for the authoring of the county’s plan to end homelessness and developing and implementing the PIT count throughout the county. The Shelter Providers Network contains agencies of all sizes and works to ensure that all agencies in this partnership work together to coordinate resources, assessment, and data for the greatest impact. Ms. Wahto shared with USICH some of the ways that Clallam has been able to specifically utilize the PIT Count and HMIS, and the ways they have been able to collaborate county-wide on initiatives like permanent supportive housing to reach these outcomes. 

Conducting a PIT Count & Using HMIS

Clallam County conducted its first PIT Count in 2003, with 65 agencies participating. “All of us [in the Shelter Providers Network] agreed that we needed to really understand the scope of what was happening, because at that time the only information we had was anecdotal. That first midnight count, we counted about 1,000 people across the county fitting the homeless definition.” Ms. Wahto mentioned that the problems that may plague other communities in conducting a PIT Count is not different than in Clallam—the prevalence of individuals who are living in campsites and parks in heavily wooded areas, however, may be more than in an urban environment. “Because our county is both rural and mountainous, it is not safe for volunteers to be searching in the woods in the middle of the night.” In order to overcome this, they had to get creative: “To make sure people who are living far out in the woods can be counted, we began to hold outreach events during the day with food and supplies that have the potential to draw people into town. Outreach workers who have relationships with these individuals would tell them about these events weeks in advance when they make their contacts.” 

Using these improved (and inventive) PIT Count methods adapted to Clallam’s specific rural area, the Shelter Provider Network has been able to get a strong baseline from which to work. Their data has also been enhanced by utilizing HMIS, which is statewide in Washington. According to Ms. Wahto, “The PIT Count is the beginning of the outreach process for many people in Clallam and helps us identify who’s out there. HMIS has been able to take our services to the next level and serve more people.”

In Washington State, HMIS is operated at a state-wide level and local communities and organizations are able to update the data as needed. “HMIS as a state-mandated database has been great for organizations like ours because it reduces the technical demands of running a quality database that Serenity House and the SPN didn’t have the funds for. We can update HMIS from anywhere as soon as we receive new information about an individual or family we work with.”
Another system that has improved our knowledge of individuals and families we work with is Secure Access Washington, a state-run integration of various databases. The state aggregates data and administrative records for from HMIS, unemployment services, the Department of Human Services, WorkSource (Washington’s Workforce Investment Act funded system), the Housing Authority and other state benefit enrollment systems and anyone in the network can access this at any time. “We’ve been using this system for six years now—this information sharing platform has improved the information we get from the Housing Authority as well regarding availability of units, tenants, etc.” Using HMIS along with information from Secure Access lets service providers see what services individuals and families are accessing, and which ones they are not yet utilizing to help them gain stability. HMIS as a starting point can help connect those experiencing homelessness with mainstream resources that they may not otherwise access on their own with the help of social service staff. 

Finally, Ms. Wahto notes that improving your data collection system not only helps improve services, it also helps to engage county leadership to do more: “Getting a good count of those in need is a commonsense approach to identifying where the problems are and county leadership understands that. Using this data, we can convince people to implement solutions like permanent supportive housing at the right level for their community.” 

Collaboration in Rural Areas

One of the key goals in Clallam County’s 10 Year Plan is to increase the number of permanent supportive housing units available for individuals and families, with a goal set of 150 new units to be developed. The county is on track to reach that goal because of the work of the Shelter Providers Network and its close relationship with the Peninsula Housing Authority. Ms. Wahto notes, “A partnership with the Housing Authority, both rural and urban, is most meaningful when the county plan is aligned with their agency goals as well. For the Peninsula Housing Authority and the Shelter Providers Network, we’re all focused on permanent housing solutions that we know are successful and cost-effective. We’re all in agreement that developments like permanent supportive housing and utilizing public housing countywide is a pragmatic approach to a serious—but not permanent—problem.” This collaboration, grounded in the smart use of data and a commitment to evidence-based practices, has made significant progress on homelessness in their rural area when it may have seemed like the population was too spread out to serve effectively.