USICH Blog

11/07/2012 - Taking Risks and Learning from Systems Change Work in Washington State to End Family Homelessness

In late October the Gates Foundation and Building Changes  hosted the Washington Families Fund Systems Initiative Data Convening, two days of discussion on what they are learning through systems redesign work that’s changing the way they respond to family homelessness. Granted, the Seattle area has many assets to bring to this work, including a history of state and philanthropic funding targeting family homelessness and local levies that raise additional revenue. They have a committed group of state, county, and other local leaders from housing, human services, and employment. They have created a strong intermediary in Building Changes. They have invested in research and evaluation to monitor their successes and have invested in improved data collection and data integration.                         

Even though every state or city may not have the same type of assets, the basic themes I heard in Seattle are themes we are hearing across the country when we’re talking about family homelessness.

  • Rapid Re-Housing has definitely changed the way that communities respond to family homelessness. Since Westat is tracking family outcomes over time, there will be good information on how effective rapid re-housing is at helping families not only leave shelter, but also in gaining stable housing over time.
  • Coordinated intake saves families from making dozens of phone calls hoping to find space in a shelter or housing. But, it still difficult to match the needs of families to available resources; sometimes because of a lack of sufficient housing, at other times because the screening protocols of individual programs screen out people who would otherwise be eligible. Finally, coordinated intake in and of itself cannot solve the shortage of affordable housing.
  • Families in need of homelessness assistance are extremely poor, including the significant number of working families. In addition, they carry significant debt from prior housing, health care bills, utilities and other services. Engagement of employment assistance programs in providing the kind of help that these families need to rise out of poverty is absolutely critical to ending their homelessness.
  • Transitional housing providers are being challenged to reconsider their role in the local Continuum of Care, and are asking themselves tough but necessary questions. Given the cost of the intervention, which families need it most? What outcomes should be used to measure the interventions success? When should it be repurposed to rapid re-housing, affordable housing, or permanent supportive housing? How is that actually done?

Before I came to USICH, I had done some work with the family providers in Washington State. I was there when they were asking questions about how best to work with families with the highest level of needs. It was particularly interesting to me to see the discussion develop into one about how the community is adjusting to what we are learning through rapid re-housing, recognizing that there are also families who do not have the level of need for which many transitional housing programs were designed.

I left with a few thoughts that might apply to other communities as well:

  • Becoming data-driven also means becoming more nimble. When decisions about changing systems are made based on history and anecdote, there is no tie-breaker, if you will, for how to move forward. But when decisions are made based on empirical data, and hopefully someday real time data, then the facts of what is working and what is not, who is being helped and who is not, cease to be subjects of debate and become instead an urgent call to action.
  • Change is hard. And to do it well, all stakeholders must be involved in the dialogue about why change is necessary and what change means. But there also needs to be bold action. All the literature I’ve ever read on change suggests that some will forge ahead, some will quickly follow, and others will follow only reluctantly. The leaders should not wait when the path ahead seems clear.
  • Rapid re-housing is not being held up as the only solution to family homelessness, but it is a new tool that needs a prominent place in a community’s continuum. And now that the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing funds are gone, it is up to communities to reconfigure what they fund and how they fund it to sustain rapid re-housing going forward.

Jeff Raikes, the head of the Gates Foundation, opened the event with a speech entitled “Everything I know about ending homelessness I learned at Microsoft,” an admittedly edgy title. He talked compellingly about vision paired with data, and he talked about having permission to take risks. We also talked about taking risks based on available data. During a period where communities are at risk of losing ground on family homelessness by sticking with the way they traditionally have responded, driving with a sense of great urgency toward coordinated intake, the matching of available resources with the needs of presenting families, and a reallocation of resources to invest in more rapid re-housing seem like a pretty wise risk to take.

Access the convening materials, CEO Jeff Raikes keynote, and videos

Read NAEH and CSH’s white paper on changes to the country’s approach to family homelessness.

Read Jeff Raikes, CEO Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s blog, “What Working at Microsoft can Teach Us About Ending Family Homelessness,” accompanied by a powerful video from families in Washington State.

Read David Wertheimer, Deputy Director, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s blog reflecting on lessons learned from convening participants. 

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