Whatcom Homeless Service Center


The Whatcom Homeless Service Center in Bellingham, Washington, provides centralized, coordinated entry to community housing and service programs targeted to people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Through formal partnerships with 20 community providers throughout the county, it coordinates a “no wrong door” intake process, conducts individualized assessments to match families and individuals with appropriate housing and providers, and manages a coordinated waiting list.

Problem or Challenge:

Prior to the County launching a coordinated entry process, each shelter and housing assistance program in Whatcom County had its own intake and assessment process and its own admission criteria. Those who were eligible were admitted on a first-come first-served basis. This meant that people in need of assistance had to call around to each program looking for an available shelter bed or supportive housing slot. It also meant that people with the greatest needs often went un-served or were underserved.

In 2008, the County and the local Continuum of Care formed the Whatcom County Homeless Service Center (WHSC) at the Opportunity Council, the local community action agency. WHSC was formed to provide a coordinated point of exit from homelessness for individuals and families with both moderate and severe housing barriers, and prevention services to close the front door to homelessness for those who are in severely unstable housing situations. Through partnerships with local service providers, the WHSC directs a coordinated intake process that prioritizes needs and guides decisions about how to use available resources based on an assessment of the vulnerability of the individual or family to continued homelessness.  

With the new system, the county has found that providers are saving time on intake and waitlist management, are serving more of the people who have the greatest needs, are better able to share data on clients via the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), and can better measure system-wide outcomes.

Solution:

Managed by the Opportunity Council, WHSC is a one-stop center providing an integrated set of homelessness prevention, assessment, case management, advocacy, access, and referral services and resources to individuals and families who are at risk of homelessness or are already homeless. It serves as a centralized, coordinated entry point for accessing over 20 programs operated by local partner agencies, including emergency shelter, transitional housing, rapid re-housing, and permanent supportive housing. The partner agencies provide case management supports to people participating in these programs, helping them find stable housing and reach their goals for housing stability. WHSC also manages a coordinated waiting list for all community-based housing programs that are targeted to people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, and performs landlord outreach and support. 

WHSC began in 2008 as a pilot program of the Opportunity Council and five allied partner agencies, which serve a wide variety of people facing homelessness (youth, domestic violence survivors, chronically homeless adults, families, and people at imminent risk of homelessness). The number of partner agencies has since grown to 20. Following a 2011 Performance Improvement Clinic (HEARTH Academy) led by the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH), improvements were made to the system to better target prevention services and to establish more robust mechanisms for collaborative information sharing between providers within HMIS.  

Funding

In 2005 and 2007, Washington State adopted legislation that requires county auditors to collect a surcharge on recorded documents. These funds support local strategies to prevent or reduce homelessness. WHSC is one of two projects in Whatcom County to receive these funds. A portion of the funds, for rental subsidies and case management services related to Housing First and rapid re-housing, pass through the Opportunity Council to local providers. Any agency that seeks this funding must participate in the coordinated entry system and in HMIS.

Implementation Steps/Tips:

Intake

WHSC serves as a central point of intake, assessment and referral to local homeless assistance programs, but is not the only point of intake. The community has adopted a “no wrong door” approach: people needing assistance can either go first to WHSC or to a local service provider, which does a quick intake into HMIS before referring the individual or family to WHSC for a more comprehensive assessment. WHSC trains partner agency staff to conduct intakes at other locales and service settings, including street outreach, jail, remote areas of the county, domestic violence providers, etc.  In these cases, providers can use a paper form of the HMIS intake and provide that information to WHSC to start a client profile and set up an appointment for an assessment. 

Households eligible for WHSC are families and individuals who have incomes at or below 50% of area median income and experiencing or at risk of homelessness.

Assessment and referral

Using a standardized assessment tool embedded in HMIS, WHSC makes a service or referral determination based on the person’s characteristics, needs and the availability of resources to serve them. Due to the wide variety of programs and funding sources, additional screening tools may be used. For example, families with children who are unsheltered or staying in emergency shelter will be scored to determine their eligibility for WHSC’s Rapid Re-housing program, which was funded as a HUD Demonstration project; single, chronically homeless individuals who are on a list of identified frequent emergency service utilizers will be assessed using a standardized Vulnerability Assessment Tool to determine their eligibility for the Police Pilot Project, a permanent supportive program that uses a Housing First approach. If the person is currently housed but in danger of losing their housing, the Opportunity Council’s Community Resource Center provides them with homelessness prevention services, including emergency financial assistance, advocacy, and case management.  A triage tool, adapted from that used in Hennepin County, Minnesota, is used to calibrate prevention services to level of need.

If the person is homeless and has high barriers to housing stability that require permanent supportive housing, WHSC sends their information to a partner agency able to provide more intensive housing case management. If the person is homeless but does not have housing barriers that would require permanent supportive housing, WHSC connects them to rapid re-housing services, which includes temporary rent assistance and case management services to rapidly link the household to permanent housing. 

When appropriate resources are not available to serve the household (such as a vacancy in permanent supportive housing), WHSC places the individual or family on a coordinated waiting list. WHSC may also refer them to an emergency shelter until a unit is available. Partner agencies notify WHSC when openings become available and WHSC then refers people that match the agency’s eligibility criteria from the waiting list. Some organizations that participate in the coordinated entry system no longer run their own waiting lists in favor of using this centralized list, which is called the housing interest pool. They have found that this lessens their administrative burden and helps them concentrate on their housing-focused services.

Provider agencies become WHSC partner agencies by one or more of several mechanisms: (A) being a recipient of any funding that is managed through the Whatcom County Health Department, the Continuum of Care lead agency; (B) entering into the HMIS data-sharing agreement; or (C) becoming a WHSC subcontractor for project-specific funding.  

WHSC has been able to attract additional resources from other sources, such as HPRP, VA, and HUD Supportive Housing Program funding, county mental health funding, and philanthropic grants. They also have launched a project with the police department, which contributes funding for case management with the expectation that coordinated entry will reduce their most frequent contacts/highest cost population among people who are experiencing chronic homelessness. 

Outcomes/Results:

Whatcom County has experienced significant benefits from its coordinated entry system. Homelessness in Whatcom County declined consistently since 2008 across populations, including a 48 percent decrease in chronic homelessness and a significant decline in homelessness among Veterans. They are now serving people with very complex needs who almost never were served well in permanent housing prior to 2008. 

WHSC is continuously tweaking its system and adding additional features to make it work more smoothly, and continues to add service providers in a gradual and deliberate way to its coordinated entry system.

Lessons Learned:

  • Data sharing is critical. WHSC found that its biggest challenge in designing its coordinated entry system was having reliable data as a basis for decision making. WHSC had to design and implement multi-agency HMIS data-sharing agreements and client consent tools. They also recently developed a multi-agency release of information tool that many agencies can buy into (and that clients can opt out of). These collaborative information sharing tools are important, and not having them in place can significantly slow down the process.
  • Service and housing gaps become more evident once the coordinated entry process has been in operation. As the Whatcom system was able to identify and target more people with complex needs, it found the community lacked project-based permanent supportive housing options with on-site supports that would better serve some of the individuals.
  • Never underestimate the willingness of independent agencies to collaborate if you offer the right mix of incentives. WHSC serves people who experience homelessness, but its primary clients are landlords and the independent nonprofit agencies that provide the intensive supportive services.  

Contact Info for Follow-up: 

Whatcom Homeless Service Center is located at the Opportunity Council in Bellingham,  WA

Phone (360) 255-2091

For more information see this brochure

Resources:

Building Changes. January 2012. Coordinated Entry Case Study:  Whatcom County, WA.

Cornerstone Strategies.  January 29, 2008.  A Home for Everyone: 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness in Whatcom County, Phase III Update.  

Related Profiles:

Evidence-Based Practice:  Permanent Supportive Housing

Evidence Based Practice:  Housing First

Promising Practice: Coordinated Entry

Promising Practice: Rapid Re-Housing

Promising Practice:  Streamlining Access to Housing

Model Program:  Columbus Coordinated Entry

Model Program:  Front Door Assessment (Dayton, OH)