Welcoming Meriça Whitehall, new Interim Executive Director of A Way Home Washington


Since October of 2023, A Way Home Washington (AWHWA) Strategic Communications Director, Ben Sung Henry, has served as Interim Executive Director during Julie Patiño’s continuing leave. Thanks to the leadership of Ben and many others, AWHWA is now in a place to continue moving forward in our mission to reduce and ultimately end unaccompanied youth and young adult homelessness in Washington.

It is with great honor that we welcome Meriça Whitehall as the new interim Executive Director of A Way Home Washington, who has assumed the role effective Feb. 26.

Meriça is an experienced and human-centered leader who will partner with us to stabilize and sustain our growth, increase our visibility, strengthen our work, and further build our team. She brings more than 25 years of experience empowering teams, strengthening organizational operations, improving financial performance, and planning and implementing long-term strategy.

Most recently, Meriça served as YouthCare’s Interim COO and Hugo House’s Interim COO and Interim Executive Director. She also previously served as the Executive Director of Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue, Nebraska, where she spearheaded the creation of a 20-year master plan and completed development of new revenue streams, capital projects, and acquisitions.

Meriça earned an Executive Master’s Degree in Nonprofit Leadership from Seattle University, where she taught frameworks for community engagement as a faculty member following completion of her degree.

Times of change may come and go, but the unshakeable soul of A Way Home Washington is its north-star constant, the fixed point our eyes never waver from — the moment when we’ll see safety and housing stability for every young person in this state. We are inspired to look around our community and see that light burning in your eyes too. Thank you for the passion and strength you all share with us and with each other.

The Intersection Between Homelessness and Foster Care

“We have a long way to go, but every bit of advocacy that our agencies get involved in helps to change the lives of those who have experienced severe trauma, and they deserve a chance for success.”

Sara Mack
Managing Director of Foster Youth
Volunteers of America Eastern WA & Northern Idaho

With May being National Foster Care Month, we are reminded of how youth and young adult homelessness intersects with other systems. The foster care system often intertwines with the youth and young adult homeless systems, creating touchpoints that funnel young people from one system to the next. 

At A Way Home Washington, we prioritize looking at bigger systems and their intersection with youth and young adult homelessness, while working in partnership with local communities to address systems gaps. Ensuring that young people do not exit public systems of care into homelessness is a key part of our prevention strategy.

Programs such as the Independent Youth Housing Program (IYHP) are designed to minimize the number of young people exiting foster care into homelessness. According to Sara Mack, Managing Director of Foster Youth at Volunteers of America Eastern WA & Northern Idaho, the program offers young people supportive services and teaches them life skills such as cooking, cleaning, and how to budget and pay rent. Staff in the program also teach young people how to work through renter’s rights and responsibilities. Because the program is helping to stabilize youth exiting foster care, it also serves to prevent young people from experiencing homelessness.

“It is a good bridge for young adults who have not experienced living on their own and want to leave their foster placements,” Sara says.

According to a new report published by DSHS, 17 percent of young people in foster care experience homelessness within 12 months of aging out of the system in Washington. That’s roughly one in six. While that number might seem high, it actually represents a major improvement. Just two years ago, the number of young people exiting foster care into homelessness was a staggering 29 percent. 

To that end, our ACI team is working closely with each Anchor Community to ensure that a local representative from the state agency that oversees the foster care system is present at regularly occurring inter-system conversations geared toward finding innovative solutions and bridging systems gaps. 

IYHP providers like Sara are also present at those regularly occurring conversations to further ensure that we are closing the pipeline from foster care to youth and young adult homelessness. Not only are they present in conversations at the community level, but each community has stepped up to help change the landscape for Washington to functionally end homelessness for ALL young people.

Despite the progress we’ve seen, we still have quite a way to go to ensure that no young person exits foster care into homelessness.

“I have seen the transformation that Washington State has done for foster youth since 2007 and it has been great to see our state take an interest in changing the system,” Sara says. “We have a long way to go, but every bit of advocacy that our agencies get involved in helps to change the lives of those who have experienced severe trauma, and they deserve a chance for success.”

December 2021 Newsletter

Our December newsletter looks back at advancements made in 2021 to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness, along with a preview of what’s on tap for 2022. Read it here

November 2021 Newsletter

Check out our November Newsletter with highlights of new staff, as well as our new COVID dashboard that details the impacts of the pandemic on young people experiencing homelessness and housing instability. Read it here

October 2021 Newsletter

Read our October Newsletter with highlights of our Centralized Diversion Fund and information about expansion of the Anchor Communities Initiative. Read it here

2021 CDF Press Release

New Report Demonstrates Effectiveness of Flexible Diversion Funds for Young People At Risk of Homelessness

‘30 in 30’ challenge leads to 86 young people in Pierce, Spokane, Yakima, and Walla Walla counties prevented from entering the homelessness system or diverted out last month

WASHINGTON – A Way Home Washington (AWHWA), the campaign to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness in Washington state, released an eye-opening new report explaining and demonstrating achievements of the Centralized Diversion Fund (CDF) pilot, a program that provides flexible payments made to prevent young people from experiencing homelessness or divert young people from homelessness within 30 days.

The report – The A Way Home Washington Centralized Diversion Fund: Using Flexible Funds to Prevent and End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness in Washington State was prepared for the Schultz Family Foundation, which serves as a key funder of the CDF along with the state Office of Homeless Youth. The report outlines the successes of the pilot program since its launch in August 2020 in Pierce, Spokane, Yakima, and Walla Walla counties. At press time in late May, the CDF had resulted in more than 220 young people finding a housing solution. 96% of people who exited homelessness did not return within three months. More than half were young people of color.

“Ending youth homelessness is not just about helping someone exit homelessness, it requires reaching a young person before they ever enter the homelessness system,” said Julie Patiño, Executive Director of A Way Home Washington. “By spending a relatively small amount of money now, we are able to creatively remove small barriers and end a young person’s housing crisis. In doing so, you save an incredible amount of time and resources later on – but most importantly, you might be saving someone’s life. The Centralized Diversion Fund is also an important tool to ensure young people of color and LGBTQ youth can access the unique housing resources that they need to move out of the homelessness system.”

A diversion fund is a flexible pool of money that can be drawn upon by youth workers in consultation with their clients – in this case, young people experiencing housing instability and at risk of not having a place to live. With the CDF, anyone who works with young people can be trained to administer diversion services, coupled with help for anything that might execute a housing plan, such as acquiring a state-issued identification card, filling out job applications, and applying for student financial aid. The CDF can be used for anything that will result in a young person being housed outside of the homelessness system. Examples include paying for child care so that a young parent can go to work and stabilize their housing situation, paying for a rental security deposit so that a young person can move into a new home, or  countless other creative solutions.

From May 20 to June 20, AWHWA worked with the four Anchor Communities – Pierce, Spokane, Yakima, and Walla Walla counties – to create an additional proof-of-concept for the CDF by launching the “30 Diversions In 30 Days” campaign. ‘30 In 30’ challenged each community to divert 30 young people out of homelessness during the 30 day period, using CDF funds and innovative housing solutions. In total, the communities broke expectations and served 86 young people over the 30 day stretch.

Elisha P., a Homeless Youth and Young Adult Services Navigator for Blue Mountain Action Council in Walla Walla, personally housed 19 people from May 20 to June 20. Elisha said, “As someone with my own experience of housing instability and young adult homelessness, I know that diversion is such a powerful tool beyond monetary measure. The real value is in the conversation that helps build a stronger connection between the young person and me. Connection and trust lends itself to some pretty amazing solutions. I can really lean in and create a space for the young person to share with me who they are and where they want to be. With that knowledge, I can sit in the passenger seat and help them find their own resolution. Diversion funding is what allows me to say “Yes!” when they identify a housing solution and make their creative idea a reality.”

AWHWA’s Anchor Community Initiative (ACI) that created the Centralized Diversion Fund is in the midst of a multi-year effort to functionally end youth and young adult homelessness in the four communities mentioned above – achieving “yes to yes,” where communities are able to stably house every young person experiencing homelessness quickly. Thanks to leadership from Governor Jay Inslee, AWHWA Co-Chair First Lady Trudi Inslee, and legislative leaders, state funding for the ACI was renewed this year for another budget biennium. At the same time, the state’s final budget includes funding to expand the ACI into new communities across the state. AWHWA will make announcements later this year about the future of ACI expansion, along with likely expansion of the CDF.

For more information (non press inquiries) about the Anchor Community Initiative and Centralized Diversion Fund, reach out to Ashley Barnes-Cocke at abarnes-cocke@awayhomewa.org.

What Is the Centralized Diversion Fund?

A Way Home Washington’s (AWHWA’s) Centralized Diversion Fund (CDF) is a cost-effective, young person-centered solution to homelessness and housing instability that is already transforming the four Anchor Communities. Since its launch last August at the height of the pandemic, Yakima, Pierce, Spokane and Walla Walla counties have collectively housed more than 220 youth and young adult (YYA) households.

Diversion is a core component of AWHWA’s strategy to end youth and young adult homelessness in Washington. The CDF model assists individuals or households in quickly securing housing outside of the homelessness response system. Together, the young person and a trained provider tailor strategies that lead to safe and stable housing, coupled with one-time financial assistance when needed. 

The CDF also serves as a tool for prevention. Young people who are experiencing housing instability can access the fund to stabilize their living situation before they ever enter homelessness.

Those working with young people in the Anchor Communities can get trained and certified to provide diversion services. AWHWA has been diligently ensuring that many non-traditional providers are trained and certified in addition to larger community providers. This way, the CDF is far-reaching and easily accessible for young people. School district, worksource, legal aid, service provider and shelter staff, as well as folks working in organizations designed primarily to serve young people who are BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color ) and LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer) are among those being trained to directly access the CDF.

The first step to accessing diversion occurs when a young person seeks housing support in their community. This is followed by a service provider meeting with them to explore creative housing possibilities. If financial assistance is needed, it is offered through the CDF. The provider enrolls the young person into HMIS (Homeless Management Information System). Then the young person exits to safe and stable housing, and the provider follows up with them within fourteen days to update their new location.

To capitalize on the momentum of our Anchor Communities doing amazing work to house young people on May 20, we launched our CDF 30 in 30 Challenge— a 30 day period where Anchor Communities strive to complete 30 diversions each. So far, each community has found innovative ways to increase the number of housing placements while ensuring that the housing is safe, stable and most importantly, chosen by the young person.

To see how Anchor Communities are benefiting from the CDF and how much they are spending, click here to go to our Public CDF Dashboard.

ACI Impact in Spokane

According to Matt Davis, one of the ACI leads in Spokane, in the short time that the Anchor Community Initiative (ACI) has been active, it has made a noticeable impact on the homeless youth and young adult system. One example of this is the formation of the “Yes to Yes” Committee, which has a focus on case conferencing to ensure that young people are not left behind in the system. Through case conferencing, you can see the intentionality of cross-system collaboration to a common goal—moving youth and young adults out of the homeless system and into permanent housing!

Many people think of cross-system collaboration as everyone who works with a young person coming together to communicate and share resources. This is only partially true. 

Cross-systems collaboration also means asking, “who needs to be at the table to help this young person move from experiencing homelessness to being housed?” and not waiting for them to come to the table, but instead bringing the table to them.

The ACI has shifted the paradigm around youth and young adults’ expertise as well. When speaking with him, Matt and many others in Spokane truly believe that youth and young adults with lived experience are the key to understanding the impact of homelessness, the impact of policy change and finding the right solutions that work for ending homelessness. Spokane made the decision to ensure that the voices of those with lived experience are always present in their Built for Zero team as an affirmation of this belief.

Because working with young adults with lived experience has been so impactful, Spokane has started to work with people with lived experience for other subpopulations as well.

According to Matt, Spokane has always had a vision for wanting to do authentic youth and young adult collaboration but has not always had the resources or tools to do so in a way that is consistent and impactful.

Thankfully resources like state ACI Funding, which was recently renewed by Governor Inslee and the legislature, allows for communities to have extra funds dedicated to bringing those with lived experience to the table. 

In Spokane this means ensuring that young people, including those on the Youth Advisory Board, who contribute their time and expertise are always compensated. Other ways that state funding supports Spokane include: 

1. Adding additional resources to the data collection team. By participating in the ACI, achieving quality data and using continuous improvement science to drive reductions in homelessness other populations such as single adults and families are benefitting as well. Spokane has begun work to build By-Name Lists for all populations based on the learnings and tools developed through the ACI.

2. Fully funding the in-reach team. The in-reach team is the first point of contact for youth and young adults already experiencing homelessness in Spokane. The team is made up of a diverse group of members across several systems, including juvenile justice, education, local government, and others. 

The Centralized Diversion Fund (CDF) has also made it so youth and young adults don’t have to participate in systems to get help. Because they don’t have to go through systemic hurdles, young people can get help quickly through the CDF. This allows Spokane to do preventive work to keep young peoples from experiencing homelessness and adding to an already backlogged system. 

The success of the CDF in Spokane for youth and young adults has inspired Spokane County to do their own version of the CDF for other populations at risk of homelessness.

In only three years, the ACI has worked with Spokane to plan and implement some important changes to the structure and resource pool of the homeless youth and young adult system. Because of these changes, Matt Davis and the Spokane team believe that reaching “Yes to Yes” and ending youth and young adult homelessness in Spokane by the end of 2022 is in reach.