Getting an Initiative Started

When we’re working towards a big goal – like, let’s say, ending youth and young adult homelessness – choosing where to start can be the most challenging step. We ask ourselves, will this first step lead to the change we want to see? Our team learned how to answer this tricky question when Community Solutions trained us on continuous quality improvement.

The concept behind continuous quality improvement is simple: If you want to improve a process, test a small change. If you see improvement, stick with it and test it on a larger scale. If you don’t see improvement, try something else. The key is to clearly define what improvement means and to start with small changes that are easy to implement. For example, an organization with the goal of serving more young people per day could start by testing a new version of their intake questionnaire and measuring the impact this has on their results.

Our expert paper plane engineers

To help us really grasp the concept, Community Solutions gave us an assignment: Make a paper plane and measure how far it flies. Then, make small changes to the plane design with the goal of flying it farther. With our limited knowledge of physics and the laws of aerodynamics, we set out to fly a paper plane farther than any nonprofit ever has before! We’re not sure if we set any records, but we did learn some important lessons about testing changes and measuring impact:

  1. Test one change at a time. We decided that the smaller and lighter a plane, the farther it must fly. So, we cut slits in the plane’s wings and we cut the plane shorter. It was…unsuccessful. And we realized that by testing two changes at once, we couldn’t tell which of these changes was the culprit. Similarly, if an organization tries changing their intake questionnaire AND making it available online at the same time, it would be hard to tell which change impacted results.
  2. Some changes are hard to undo. Once we cut a third of our plane off, there was no going back. If we wanted a full-size plane again, we had to start over. Before testing a change, organizations must consider whether it’s possible to go back on it if it doesn’t lead to improvement.
  3. The importance of iterating. We realized that drastic changes were delaying our process since we had to start over if they didn’t work. We shifted our focus to small, incremental changes. Let’s say that changing the intake questionnaire did help the organization serve more young people per day. Then, making the questionnaire accessible through other channels, like the organization’s website, can be a second, separate change to test.

With continuous quality improvement, choosing where to start becomes less intimidating. It helps us realize that our first step is simply one of many possibilities that we can test. If it leads to results, that’s wonderful! We can continue down that path. But if it doesn’t? That just means it’s time to try something new.

What Equity Means to Us

At A Way Home Washington, our core values include equity, positive youth development, a data-driven culture and trauma-informed practice. Our Deputy Director, Erin, writes about what equity means at A Way Home Washington.

There’s a quote attributed to Maya Angelou that I love: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” The idea that we have to start where we are, and then hold ourselves accountable to change course as we learn and grow, makes me think about A Way Home Washington’s journey towards equity. We embarked on this journey with an understanding that learning and growth are part of the process, and that new information and new voices at the table are necessary to strengthen our work.

We need to center equity in our work because without equity we cannot end youth and young adult homelessness. In our state and around the country, young people of color – especially Black, Latinx and Native young people – are overrepresented in homelessness. And nationwide, about 40% of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+ according to True Colors United. We need to understand and acknowledge these facts, and then actively work to undo the various forms of systemic racism and oppression that lead to these outcomes.

Putting our heads together at an Equity Committee meeting

A critical part of our journey towards equity has been forming an internal Equity Committee, and co-creation has been a key principle of this committee. Critical race scholar john a. powell says that othering is a part of oppression, and the antidote to othering is fostering a sense of belonging. Belonging, powell argues, comes from co-creation. The Equity Committee is open to any and all staff, and together we’ve created a set of values that drive our work: equity, positive youth development, trauma-informed practice and data-driven culture.

I was an enthusiastic founding member of the Equity Committee because I genuinely wanted to hear from my colleagues what equity meant to them, and how they wanted this work to come alive. I know I don’t have all the answers, and my own knowledge and experiences are limited. I need each of my coworkers’ unique brilliance and insight to teach me and help me grow, to complement and improve me. This work moves our team forward so we can achieve more just, equitable outcomes for young people.

Ending youth and young adult homelessness will take everything we’ve got. We need everyone on the A Way Home Washington team and our external partners to feel a sense of shared ownership and responsibility to achieve our mission. We must commit to continuously improving our own understanding of equity and model this value for stakeholders around the state. And we must hold ourselves accountable in the same way we ask others to be. This work will help us understand the unique needs of young people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+ so that we can help them find safe, stable housing and a path forward in their lives.  

The Time Is Right for Structural Change

Throughout my career, I’ve observed an unfortunate truth – some young people are further from justice than others. Experiencing homelessness is traumatic for any young person. But if we look at the data, we’ll see that young people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+ are overrepresented in homelessness. From the time I was a little boy, I started to see the structural issues that lead to these outcomes.

During my early childhood years, my family lived in the High Point “projects” in West Seattle.  Being one of the few white families in the neighborhood, I sensed that not everyone in my community was treated the same. High Point was considered low-income housing, and I saw how some of my friends’ families were scrutinized by government social workers. This scrutiny and these policies had a traumatic impact on my little friends and their families, and they constantly navigated this struggle with retaining their government assistance.

As a little boy, I didn’t have the words to describe what I was seeing, but I knew that my friends were treated differently because they happened to be black or Native American. As an adult, I realized that what I witnessed as a child was systemic racism.

We live in a white dominant culture where simply existing as a person of color can be penalized by our systems. For generations, redlining, employment discrimination and discrimination by the child welfare and other systems blocked families of color from the opportunities that my own family could access. My neighbors’ fears were not due to any acts of child neglect or abuse. They were afraid because their homes could be deemed unfit simply because they were not white, middle-class homes. I’ll never forget how my friends of color and their families were the most afraid when “the white lady” was coming – the government social worker who inspected their homes.

Even back then, this was nothing new – it stemmed all the way back to indigenous children separated from their families and put in boarding schools, and the horrors of killing the Indian to save the child. But it has gone on too long, and it’s time for structural change.

When we strengthen families, we help prevent youth and young adult homelessness. And in order to strengthen all families, including families of color, we need structural change. We need to differentiate between child abuse and neglect and poverty. Rather than breaking families apart because of their economic conditions, we need to invest in resources that will help break cycles of intergenerational poverty.

The good news is, I see signs of change that will help strengthen families. At the federal level, the Family First Prevention Services Act directs child welfare resources toward keeping families together. Previously, child welfare agencies only received funding after children were removed from their families.

In our state, the Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) has implemented the Family Assessment Response (FAR) with the goal of ensuring both child safety and family integrity. These assessments look into the underlying causes of situations that may look like child neglect on the surface. For example, if a parent leaves their child unsupervised because they need to work multiple jobs and have no access to childcare, the solution is not to remove the child from the home. The solution is to connect the family to resources that will help them. These are the types of outcomes that FAR is meant for.

To achieve structural change, we need to start seeing all young people as ours. If we fell on hard times, would we want our families to be torn apart? Would we want help for our families, or separation? Of course we would want to stay with our families, and help getting back on our feet. This approach is both much more moral and makes better economic sense in the short and long run.  Let’s start advocating for all families to have the resources we would want for our own!

Check out why Jim also says the time is right for solutions and systemic change.

Anchor Communities Receive $4 Million

During the 2019 legislative session, we were overjoyed that the Office of Homeless Youth (OHY) budget included $4 million for the Anchor Community Initiative. Over the past few months, organizations in the Anchor Communities submitted proposals to OHY requesting funding for services in the community. Here’s how these funds will make an impact in each community:

Pierce County

Pierce County will be able to expand their existing outreach team, creating a 24/7 emergency hotline, training staff in diversion and gaining access to coordinated entry. The community will also be able to establish a young adult shelter, which previously had no permanent location.

Spokane

The City of Spokane and Volunteers of America will expand street outreach and create a shelter for young adults ages 18-24 in Spokane and surrounding rural communities. New outreach capabilities will allow schools and behavioral health treatment providers more quickly and efficiently identify youth and young adults experiencing homelessness or at risk of homelessness. A new 24/7 young adult shelter with coordinated entry assessments on-site adds 30 beds for young adults ages 18-24 of any gender.

Walla Walla

Previously, young people in Walla Walla had access to HOPE beds through Catholic Charities and young adult long-term housing through Blue Mountain Action Council (BMAC). Now BMAC will be able to add housing capacity for young adults and create an outreach team to better connect with young people.

Yakima

New funding will allow Rod’s House to open a shelter and increase outreach coverage and drop-in services. Catholic Charities will be able to increase young adult housing and Yakima Neighborhood Health Services will increase LGBTQ+ support services.

We’re excited to see these funds building capacity in Anchor Communities as we continue our work to end youth and young adult homelessness!

Bringing All Systems Together

One of the most important features of a quality By-Name List is making sure it includes ALL unaccompanied youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. Not only does the list tell us how many young people are experiencing homelessness in the community, it also gives us important information about each individual young person, like their location and how long they have been experiencing homelessness.

Creating a comprehensive By-Name List takes a lot of teamwork. No one organization interacts with every young person in need, so the entire community needs to work together to make sure the list is comprehensive. Local school districts, child welfare and juvenile justice systems are key players in reaching quality, real-time data. All Anchor Community teams have been working hard to establish data sharing protocols across different systems, and we caught up with Walla Walla to hear more about the challenges they’ve found and solutions they’re testing to overcome barriers.

“We’re seeing a real need for agencies to adopt their own policies that really connect young people to the By-Name List and the homeless crisis response system,” said Sierra Knutson, Homeless & Housing Coordinator at Walla Walla County Dept. of Community Health and part of the Anchor Community team. “Staff are working really hard every day to serve young people, so it can be difficult to add another task to their long list of responsibilities.”

Aside from finding ways to incorporate the By-Name List into multiple agencies’ work, concerns over data security and privacy are another challenge faced by communities. They’ve heard from young people that keeping their information private is important.

“Young people are afraid that being on the By-Name List means they’ll be reported to the authorities,” said Sierra. “Given our community’s history of placing youth in detention to keep them off the streets, I understand their concern. We’re working on rebuilding that trust.”

When Anchor Communities committed to ending youth and young adult homelessness in their community by 2022, they committed to facing these challenges head on. Walla Walla is no exception, and the community is testing different solutions to overcome these obstacles. To start, they developed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that will allow any organization that signs on to participate in the By-Name List. The community has obtained signatures from about half of the organizations in their work group, and while the rest wait for approvals the Anchor Community team is wasting no time testing other solutions.

Walla Walla’s new Program Coordinator, Sam!

“We now have the opportunity to add capacity to our team, and I’m hopeful that our new Program Coordinator, Samantha, will be able to really dig deeper into ways that we can collaborate across systems,” said Sierra. “We’re also eager to learn from other organizations in the community, so we will begin shadowing Supportive Services for Veteran Families case managers to build on their best practices for case conferencing.”

It’s inspiring to see all Anchor Communities thinking creatively and working unrelentingly to overcome challenges. We deeply appreciate all the work they do to end youth and young adult homelessness in our state!

Partner Spotlight: CCYJ on Justice for LGBTQ+ Young People

When we talk about the thousands of unaccompanied youth and young adults experiencing homelessness in our state, it’s critical to talk about the young people who are overrepresented in homelessness. Across the country, LGBTQ+ young people make up roughly 5-10% of the population, but 40% of young people experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+. We cannot ignore this injustice if we truly want to do right by all young people.

The Center for Children and Youth Justice (CCYJ) launched eQuality in 2013, a project to better understand the needs of LGBTQ+ youth and find better ways to serve them across different systems. We caught up with Nicholas Oakley, Sr. Programs Manager/Policy Counsel, to hear more about the project.

The faces behind eQuality at their team convening

“All aspects of a young person’s identity impact their experiences and their outcomes,” said Nicholas. “The moment we create safe, affirming environments for LGBTQ+ young people, we’re creating a path for them thrive.”

Through eQuality, CCYJ has spoken to LGBTQ+ individuals with personal experience in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, as well as system professionals and service providers. The organization created the Protocol for Safe and Affirming Care based on these findings. The protocol includes asking all youth their sexual orientation and gender identity when they access services or systems.

“You don’t count unless you’re counted,” said Nicholas. “We need data to show that safe and affirming services for LGBTQ+ young people are a pressing need across all systems.”

The data collected by the eQuality project confirms the intersection between LGBTQ+ identity and homelessness. Any effort to end youth and young adult homelessness needs to serve the needs of the LGBTQ+ community, and our Anchor Community Initiative is no exception. The first step of our work is achieving quality, real-time data, and part of this milestone means that Anchor Communities must collect sexual orientation and gender identity data in a culturally appropriate and responsive way.

LGBTQ+ young people live in every community, and they deserve to have their identities valued. Service providers and state agencies need to invest in educating staff at all levels on the importance of affirming LGBTQ+ young people’s identities and training staff to serve these young people with respect. The impact of culturally competent service cannot be overstated – for instance, calling transgender teens by their chosen name lowers suicide rates.

“At a time when identity politics are under attack, we need to stand up for LGBTQ+ young people,” said Nicholas. “This is not a political issue. This is an issue of our young people’s health, safety and well-being.”

The Time is Right for Systemic Change

Our Executive Director, Jim Theofelis, has dedicated his life to helping young people, as an advocate, a clinician and a leader in the movement to reform foster care and end youth and young adult homelessness. Previously, Jim shared why the time is right for solutions in Washington. Today, Jim shares why solutions must lead to systemic change.

By now, I’ve made my optimism for ending youth and young adult homelessness clear – I know the time is right for solutions. I also know that our solutions need to truly serve all young people. This means we cannot ignore issues like systemic racism, intergenerational poverty and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community. Young people and their allies have been ready for decades to create a new system that dismantles these structural inequities, and I believe we have all the pieces in place to make it happen.

The numbers don’t lie – young people of color and young people who identify as LGBTQ+ disproportionately experience homelessness. Though black youth and young adults represent 4% of the population in Washington state, 24% of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness are black. And nationwide, about 40% of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness identify as LGBTQ+ according to True Colors United.

The truth is, our systems are biased, and they disadvantage and disenfranchise people of color, including youth and young adults. Let’s look at one example: When youth act out in school, the color of their skin can be an indicator of the outcomes they can expect. The same behaviors that get a white young person referred to behavioral health services can mean a disciplinary response, like suspension or even juvenile detention, for a young black person. Systems can put young people of color on a trajectory that ends up in homelessness.

Now, I want to be very clear – this ain’t new. Systemic racism came to our shores centuries ago with the slave ships and the genocide of indigenous peoples. But we do not have to let its ripples continue to rob young people today of the opportunity they deserve. Together, we can stop perpetuating these injustices. We can be innovative and try new solutions that look different from what we’ve done before, solutions that account for each young person’s unique needs.

Systems that were not created with young people of color in mind will not work to keep them safely housed. We need to remember that young people experiencing homelessness are the true experts in preventing and ending youth and young adult homelessness. Rather than trying to fit young people into boxes that aren’t quite right, we need to listen to young people and customize services to fit their needs. For example, if a young person who has experienced trauma says they need someone to take them to their appointments and to spend time with them after each session, that is what we should provide them.

I’ve heard all sorts of criticisms of this type of services – “But that’s just enabling young people,” the naysayers protest! We need to remember that even though young people with lived experience are resilient and strong, they still have the same developmental needs as their peers who live with their families. I’m a high school soccer coach, and I think about the support that my players receive from their families. They have parents who drive them to practice, bring them a snack and water bottle, ask them about their days, have dinner and even dessert waiting for them at home. And that’s what every young person deserves: The support of people who care about them.

Jim is a longtime soccer player and coach, and he decorates his office with a quilt his mother made with jerseys from all his teams

 

Youth and young adults experiencing homelessness are expected to navigate housing, counseling, medical and legal systems all on their own. But handing a young person who is asking for help a list of resources isn’t saying “Yes” to that young person. Instead, we should say “Yes, I will take you to your appointment.” “Yes, we can talk about how difficult this is for you.” “Yes, we can stop for a treat to celebrate your courage and determination.” That is the level of support we need to give every young person, whether they have experienced homelessness or not.

I’ve always said for nearly my entire career that systems and policies don’t change lives – relationships do. We need to create an environment where all young people, and especially young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people, feel safe and can develop healthy relationships. An environment where a young person of color knows that they can ask for help and receive help, not disciplinary action. That’s one of the major changes we need to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness: Treating ALL young people as if they were our own. Because they are!

Our July Reading Picks

Here at A Way Home Washington, our staff is always eager to learn. We’re always sharing articles, videos and other resources with each other to broaden our perspectives. Here’s what we’ve been reading and watching this month:

Liz’s Pick: Most Common Language After English and Spanish

The questions we ask when analyzing data and the results we choose to visualize shape the stories we tell. This map shows us the most common languages spoken in each state after English and Spanish, providing a different perspective of the United States. Seeing Navajo and Sioux on the map is a powerful reminder that Native cultures and languages are still an important part of our society. 

Erin’s Pick: Can Power Be Anything But Zero Sum?

For our work to be effective, we know that we need to share power and decision-making with young people with lived experience. In his column, Jeff Raikes – one of our important partners and funders from the Raikes Foundation – reflects on how important it is for people with great privilege and power to use it to give people with lived experience a platform to shape solutions.

Sully’s Pick: The Need for Responsible Storytelling

Young people’s personal stories have a lot of power – both to mobilize the community and to shape how the community sees young people with lived experience. To us, responsible storytelling means that young people choose when, where and how they share their stories.

Elysa’s Pick: When They See Us

Family disruption is one of the root causes of youth and young adult homelessness, and it disproportionately impacts young people of color due to systemic racism. This miniseries, based on the wrongful conviction and incarceration of five black and Latino teenagers, portrays how the judicial system breaks families of color apart.

Behind the Scenes: Coaching Anchor Communities

Every day, the Anchor Community Initiative is working towards a singular goal – preventing and ending youth and young adult homelessness in four communities by the end of 2022. In our Behind the Scenes series, we give you a sneak peek into the Anchor Communities’ work. Last month, we explained why quality, real-time data matters. Today, our Project Director, Elysa, explains how coaching helps communities reach this and all milestones.

Our Anchor Communities are hard at work creating quality By-Name Lists – you may remember this means the list is reliable, regularly updated and includes ALL unaccompanied youth and young adults experiencing homelessness by name or unique identifier. It’s no easy feat, so all Anchor Communities receive special support to do this work: Coaching.

The Anchor Community Initiative is based on a proven model that has helped twelve communities end veteran and chronic homelessness, Community Solutions’ Built for Zero model. As part of this model, coaches guide communities through the process of achieving quality data and reducing and ending youth and young adult homelessness. Their support is tailored to each community’s specific strengths, challenges and needs. We’ve adopted Built for Zero’s coaching best practices, like helping communities set goals and milestones, meeting with each community in person once a month and connecting teams to subject matter experts as needed. Effective coaches also know that celebrating their teams’ accomplishments and highlighting their progress are really important to keep teams motivated.

Reach a milestone, win a mystery gift – like Sierra in Walla Walla!

 

So how are coaches helping Anchor Community teams build their quality By-Name Lists? Each month, teams take a self-assessment called the Youth and Young Adult (YYA) By-Name List Scorecard, which consists of 43 yes-or-no questions. When teams are able to confidently answer yes to 41 of these questions, they’ve achieved a quality By-Name List. To get started, coaches helped teams bring the right people to the table to answer the scorecard questions.

The scorecard covers the different components of quality data

 

Once teams take the scorecard, they identify focus areas for improvement. Coaches bring forth tools and resources that help teams establish and work towards goals, and they help teams lead effective meetings through the principles of results-based facilitation. For example, the Spokane team chose to work on outreach coverage. They formed a workgroup called the “Outreach Huddle” and used an outreach mapping tool to work on this topic. The workgroup mapped and documented Spokane’s outreach strategy and developed a plan to involve youth and young adults in developing and conducting outreach. Through these activities, Spokane became the first community to confidently say that 100% of their county geography is covered by a documented outreach strategy.

In some ways, an Anchor Community coach  is like a sports team coach. Coaches keep their teams motivated to do the work it takes to succeed. They challenge their teams to push themselves and try new things. And they guide their teams to victory. For our Anchor Community teams, the work is achieving quality, real-time data and testing reduction strategies. Trying new things means pushing against the status quo and changing the ways systems serve young people. Victory means ending youth and young adult homelessness.