Gathering Youth Feedback in Pierce County

For the past 12 months, Anchor Communities have been working hard to achieve quality, real-time data. To reach this milestone, communities must create ways for youth and young adults to provide feedback on their experience accessing systems. In Pierce County, the Core Team created a special committee to work on this task, consisting of Angel, Brianna, and Zaira, three young people with lived experience, and iLeana, The Mockingbird Society’s Youth Engagement Coordinator. Together, they created a new process from start to finish to gather feedback.

“Being involved from the beginning of the project is essential to calling our process co-design,” Angel said. “Everyone’s perspective matters.”

The team worked on a survey to provide young people a safe space to provide their feedback. To begin, they drafted survey questions and worked with young people at the REACH Center GED program to review their questionnaire. This gave the team guidance on how to ask the questions in a way that young people would feel comfortable providing honest feedback. Then, the team developed multiple methods to distribute the survey:

  • The team started with a computer survey. However, some young people had difficulty focusing or reading from the computer, so other methods were developed.
  • Young people were hired to ask the survey questions in person. This helped young people in crisis feel supported throughout the process.
  • Staff who interact with young people for the Coordinated Entry process were trained on the survey so they could also collect information when possible.
Zaira, Devon, iLeana, Angel, and Brianna at A Way Home Washington’s advocacy day

This entire process was led by Angel, Brianna, and Zaira. They were responsible for every detail of the project, from typing up the questionnaire to developing the survey distribution methods. iLeana supported them as needed to keep the project moving, providing coaching on matters like meeting deadlines. This approach helped Angel, Brianna, and Zaira nurture their leadership skills and take full ownership over the project’s outcome.

“It was very valuable for me to have accountability in my projects, like in creating this survey, because it lets me own my own mistakes and successes,” Zaira said.

After gathering responses, the team’s key insights from the survey were:

  • Youth and young adults need easier access to programs that teach independent living skills
  • Young people who are couch-surfing do not always qualify for resources even though they need support to access basic necessities

Our Anchor Communities value co-development of projects with youth and young adults, and this project demonstrates why this is such an important value. Youth and young adults experiencing homelessness navigate these systems every day, and we need their expertise to truly understand what’s working and what’s not. Our work needs to intentionally engage young people on a regular basis, so we rely on current and relevant insights.

“Youth need a seat at the table, and they need to be heard at the table,” Brianna said. “We need to be involved from the beginning of the process, we need to be involved in the design of solutions, and these opportunities need to be compensated and accessible for young people.”

Our partnerships with young people with lived experience are one of the reasons we believe the Anchor Community Initiative is the right approach to ending youth and young adult homelessness. With young people’s wisdom, we know we can arrive at the right solutions.

Responding to Crisis in our Anchor Communities

Communities around the state have been rallying to support young people experiencing housing instability as the COVID-19 outbreak unfolds, and our Anchor Communities are no exception. Anchor Community Core Team meetings have provided a space for communities to strategize around ways to respond to young people’s needs during these difficult times. Check out the strategies Spokane and Walla Walla have implemented to better serve young people:

Spokane

Spokane has an established Youth Action Board (YAB) that informs youth and young adult homelessness work in the community. Following public health guidelines, YAB meetings shifted from being in-person to being online, and the community noticed a decrease in participants. The team knew that without an active YAB, their work could not move forward.

“Our Youth Action Board is critical to ensuring that youth and young adults are represented, empowered, and active participants in local decision-making,” said Cecily Ferguson, our Spokane Anchor Community Initiative Coordinator. “The group informs improvement projects and reduction strategies for the Anchor Community Initiative, and one member sits on our Continuum of Care as a voting member to help shape our homeless services system.”

Spokane set an attendance goal of 10 young people per meeting and created a plan to achieve this goal at a recent Anchor Community Core Team meeting. The team decided to:

  • Create informational materials explaining the YAB to garner interest
  • Team members volunteered to reach out directly to 1-3 young people each to invite them to join the YAB
  • Identify any technological barriers that keep young people from attending these meetings and troubleshoot these barriers

After implementing these action items, two young people joined the meeting for the first time after being referred by community partners. They came prepared to the meeting and were engaged, enthusiastic, and thoughtful in their feedback and conversation, and ended the meeting interested in staying involved. The team will continue their outreach efforts towards the goal of reaching 10 total participants per meeting.

Walla Walla

The LOFT is an under-18 HOPE Center run by Catholic Charities in Walla Walla. As the community’s efforts to house young people amidst the pandemic intensified, shelter beds remained open at The LOFT. The Anchor Community Core Team used their meetings to identify the following barriers and solutions to ensure youth could access these beds:

  • Knowledge that The LOFT remained open – With in-person outreach diminished, the team created electronic flyers to advertise broadly that The LOFT remained open. The flyers were distributed through social media and to partners like schools who remained in contact with youth.
  • The LOFT policies – When our state’s stay-at-home order went in place, The LOFT had to implement more safety measures and secure schedules. The team heard feedback that some youth accessing services found these measures too restrictive. The LOFT decided to implement morning conversations with youth to talk about and adjust the daily schedule in a way that felt more empowering to youth.
  • Direct outreach – The LOFT staff committed to follow up with youth who had previously accessed their services, to check in and provide information about resources and services that remain available.

“School closures, in-person support group cancellations, and limited access to technology are making it harder for youth to stay connected and gain access to resources,” said Samantha Jackle, our Walla Walla Anchor Community Initiative Coordinator. “We want to stay diligent and ready to adapt our outreach and case management efforts based on the needs of youth in Walla Walla County.”

After the team made information available broadly and through partners, the referral rate from DCYF increased. Youth also began to stay longer after The LOFT staff began morning conversations.

What’s Next for the Anchor Community Initiative?

Our Anchor Communities have been making amazing progress to end youth and young adult homelessness, with one community reaching quality real-time data, and three out of four communities have completed the By-Name List Scorecard. It feels like the perfect time to highlight what’s next for A Way Home Washington and the Anchor Community Initiative.

As a refresher, the Anchor Community Initiative is based on the Built for Zero model, which has four phases. The first phase requires communities to achieve quality, real-time data. This has already been achieved by Pierce County, while Walla Walla and Yakima County are only a couple months away. The second phase is reducing. At this point, communities begin to implement improvement projects and use quality real-time data to evaluate the success of these projects.

So, what does reducing mean for to the Anchor Community Initiative? At a high-level, it means lowering the number of young people experiencing homelessness across the entire system. To start this process, our Data and Evaluation Director, Liz, has created different focus areas, or reducing process measures. Communities set goals around any of the following focus areas to start seeing reductions in their homeless numbers:

1. Lowering the number of unsheltered young people
2. Increasing the number of housing placements
3. Lowering returns from housing into homelessness
4. Lowering the average length of time young people experience homelessness

Pierce County is the first community to set a goal around one of these measures: They will focus on increasing housing placements by 30% by August 2020. As communities begin reporting race/ethnicity data and sexual orientation, gender expression and identity (SOGIE) data, they will be able to further refine their goals by adding an equity component. For example, if a community’s data shows that Black young people are housed at a lower rate than young people of other ethnicities, the community can set a goal around increasing housing placements for this population.

Communities will have access to a new tool to boost their reduction efforts: The Centralized Diversion Fund. Starting in July 2020, these flexible funds will be accessible to young people through local service providers to support them with costs like short-term rental assistance, move-in costs, and more. This will help young people stay housed and reduce the number of young people coming into the homeless system.

Youth and young adult engagement is a staple of the Anchor Community Initiative. Communities have laid the groundwork, and now they will continue to build towards the Gold Standard for youth and young adult engagement. Young people will be treated as experts and leaders in the work. This means that young people will be part of hiring, strategy development, and project implementation during this phase of the work, including choosing at least two reduction improvement projects.

Throughout all this work, we will capture best practices and successes in each community to share with other Anchor Communities and aid them in their processes. After reducing, the third phase of the work is ending youth and young adult homelessness. This means communities will create a Yes to Yes system where they have the capacity to support every young person who needs help and achieve equitable outcomes for young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people. We’re working hard to help communities end youth and young adult homelessness by the end of 2022 and sustain their achievement for generations to come!

 

 

Data to End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness

Data is a critical component of the Anchor Community Initiative. Our Data & Evaluation Director, Liz, explains what data communities are collecting and how it will help communities end youth and young adult homelessness and achieve equitable outcomes.

Ending youth and young adult homelessness requires accurate data that tells communities how many young people are experiencing homelessness in real-time, who these young people are, and what their needs are. To achieve this, Anchor Communities have established By-Name Lists and monitor monthly data points that reflect the number of unaccompanied youth and young adults entering and exiting their homeless system.

The Anchor Community Initiative draws inspiration from the Built for Zero model by Community Solutions, which has been effective in ending veteran and chronic homelessness in communities around the nation. To follow this model, communities need to look beyond the performance of projects and programs, and towards the performance of the entire homeless system. This means that each month, communities collect three types of data points:

  • Actively homeless: This encompasses ALL unaccompanied youth and young adults experiencing homelessness each month. It includes young people who are unsheltered, sheltered and couch-surfing.
  • Outflow: This is the number of young people who exit the system each month. It includes young people who have been housed, young people who providers have not been able to reach in 90 days, and people who have aged out.
  • Inflow: This is the number of young people who enter the system each month, either because they are new to the system or returning to homelessness.

Young people who experience homelessness are individuals with unique identities. Furthermore, young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people experience homelessness at higher rates than their white, cisgender, heterosexual peers. To reflect our commitment to racial and LGBTQ+ equity, we want our data to show young people’s unique identities and shine a light on disparities. We’re pushing our data work further, and we’ve updated our data infrastructure so communities can now submit race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, and age data. Anchor Communities have access to data dashboards showing these data points and other analytics thanks to software provided by the Tableau Foundation.

Demographic data allows Anchor Communities to further interrogate system performance and set goals around equitable outcomes for young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people. For example, in the data dashboard below we see that in this community, at least 11% of the young people experiencing homelessness in December 2019 are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or queer. However, the sexual orientation of over 60% of young people experiencing homelessness in this community is “unknown.” Being able to see this “unknown” percentage prompts communities and our coaching team to delve deeper into what might be happening on the ground, why these data are missing, and what improvement projects could be implemented to improve data quality.

In order to provide supportive and responsive services and housing for young people, communities must first understand what the needs are. Data provides a foundation for communities to plan and advocate for resources to support young people.

This updated data infrastructure is the first (of many) steps that we will take to achieve more equitable outcomes. The new dashboard allows us to measure improvements and reductions in youth and young adult homelessness as communities are working to make system level changes. Thank you to everyone in the Anchor Communities who works hard to submit monthly data points!

Congratulations, Pierce and Walla Walla!

For the past ten months, our four Anchor Communities have had a singular focus: answering yes to all questions on the Youth and Young Adult By-Name List scorecard and reaching quality, real-time data. In February, two of our Anchor Communities reached exciting milestones: Walla Walla became the first Anchor Community to say yes to all 41 required questions in the scorecard, and Pierce became the third community in the nation to reach quality, real-time data for youth and young adults! This means that at any given time, Pierce County knows how many unaccompanied youth and young adults are experiencing homelessness.

To get where they are today, Pierce and Walla Walla made major systemic changes.  Pierce engaged their local child welfare, juvenile justice and education systems, and they worked closely with young people to learn how to make services more accessible.  The community streamlined the process of identifying young people experiencing homelessness and adding them to the By-Name List by embedding members of their ACT team, a youth and young adult outreach team operated by the REACH Center, across all systems. They also co-created focus groups and surveys with young people, allowing them to confirm what aspects of services are working for young people and to implement changes where needed.

In Walla Walla, the community was able to fund their first ever outreach program with the help of the $1 million secured for Anchor Communities in the state budget. Blue Mountain Action Council (BMAC) hired two Navigators, enabling the community to reach full outreach coverage. The team also benefitted from the consistent participation of two young adult team members, Charlene and Carla, who held focus groups to gather young people’s input on outreach strategies and the system. Team members also stepped up to fill gaps in capacity, like Coordinator Samantha Jackle filling the role of HMIS data lead, attending trainings and working with the Department of Commerce to learn the skills needed for the task.

We’re so proud of these teams!

Saying yes to all questions on the scorecard puts infrastructure in place to help communities better understand how their systems are serving all young people, especially those who have been historically marginalized. This information is crucial as communities move towards the goal of ending youth and young adult homelessness by 2022.

After completing the scorecard, Anchor Communities keep submitting monthly data on the number of young people who enter, exit and are actively homeless. Data must be balanced for three months to confirm its reliability. Pierce County has reached this milestone, meaning they’ve reached quality data! This means that their data accurately reflects the number of young people experiencing homelessness in real time.

Without a robust data infrastructure, young people can fall through the cracks, particularly if they were not accessing any services. Since data has a significant impact on the future allotment of funding for social services, this lack of clarity has dire consequences. Quality data allows communities to better understand how funding and resources should be allocated, and to identify disparities in outcomes for young people of color and LGBTQ+ young people. It is a critical component of ending homelessness.

Now that Pierce County has reached quality data, they will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of their solutions using dashboards designed by our Data & Evaluation Director, Liz, with visualization software from the Tableau Foundation. Data analytics will tell us if a project leads to a reduction in the number of young people who are experiencing homelessness. When data shows that a project has led to a reduction, it is an indicator that the project was effective and that we are moving in the right direction to reach Yes to Yes.

Centering Youth Voice

Youth partnership is critical to ending youth and young adult homelessness, and it is one of our core values at A Way Home Washington. Sierra Phillips is one of our youth partnership consultants, and she shares how she has seen this work make an impact on youth and young adult engagement.

Adultism training. Being unafraid to fail. A high level of community participation. Funding for diversion programs. Accountability. These are a few of the things our Anchor Communities, Pierce, Walla Walla, Yakima, and Spokane, were proud of during the recent annual convening. And I am proud of working with an organization that consistently incorporates these values into the work we do.

Sierra presenting at the convening

I’ve been working as a consultant with A Way Home Washington for the past 8 months, and I’ve been helping the Anchor Community Initiative team make sure that youth and young adults are centered in activities like the annual convening. In preparation for the event, I was able to sit down with the team that works on the initiative every day, and with members of the local teams like Carla, an amazing young person from Walla Walla. Through this preparation, I gained the contextual knowledge I needed to make sure my recommendations helped the team come closer to their goal of centering young people in all activities.

The annual convening was a lot of fun. On the day of the event, I got the chance to connect with and meet some rad people, including the young people who are part of each community’s team. I learned what each community was doing and how their goals would impact their future work. And because we were intentional about creating a space where young people’s voices are heard, I believe this event helped each community better understand why youth and young adult engagement is so important in this work.  

I am encouraged to see that youth and young adult engagement is central to A Way Home Washington’s work, and that I continue to be consulted for my expertise on this topic. Over the past months, I’ve been called in to assist with interview panels for staff hiring at A Way Home Washington and work planning sessions for the Anchor Community Initiative.

I hope my future includes more of this work. It is because of A Way Home Washington and other similar agencies that I believe I am more than my story. I don’t have to sit on a stage and be paraded around as “the homeless person.” I am strong, I am capable, and I can do whatever I set my mind too. My future hopes and dreams today are much bigger than they previously were. I feel empowered with the knowledge that I do have a voice that matters in this work and I want other young people to feel that way as well.

Meet Our Student Stability Manager!

Working with schools is critical to ending youth and young adult homelessness. Megan Johnson joins the Anchor Community Initiative as the Student Stability Manager to create and implement a schools strategy. Megan tells us why this issue is so important to her, and why we need to work with schools to achieve our mission.

Throughout my career, I’ve always been interested in empowering people. As an addiction counselor, I wanted to empower my clients to take the steps they needed to live the lives they wanted. When I went back to school for a Master’s in Public Administration, I was driven by my belief that effective policy driven by the voices of those who are impacted can empower entire communities.

My graduate program required a Master’s thesis, and at first I thought my thesis would be about equity in the workplace. I wanted to focus on wages, and how they had not kept up with the cost of living in the region over the past thirty years, leading to homelessness, poverty, and a host of other social problems.  That was my plan  up until the very day we had to discuss our thesis topics in class. I remember I was driving to Seattle University and I was sitting at a stoplight on James Street, listening to a story on NPR about students experiencing homelessness in Washington State.

Megan, her dad and her stepmom on her graduation day

The story started talking about Schoolhouse Washington data, and how around our state approximately 40,000 youth ages 12-18 are experiencing homelessness on any given night.  Maybe I was tired after a long day, or maybe the topic just hit close to home, or most likely both, but I started crying.  To me, that statistic was unacceptable. We cannot allow tens of thousands of children and youth to live without a stable place to call home during their formative years. So, on my way to class, I decided to change my thesis topic and focus on student homelessness instead.

As I worked on my thesis, I saw firsthand how deep inequity runs in our systems. Across different school districts, schools around the state vary wildly in their resources to support students experiencing homelessness and in their capacity to apply for grants. These disparities lead to vastly different outcomes for students of color and students in rural communities – Schoolhouse Washington recently reported that six out of ten students experiencing homelessness are students of color, and that students in rural areas experience homelessness at a higher rate.  These appalling statistics propel me. They drive me to devote my work to this issue because students of all races, ethnicities, gender identities, religions and housing circumstances deserve equitable access to education.

To end youth and young adult homelessness, we need to work in partnership with the school system. Many times, school is the only constant place for students experiencing homelessness. We need buy in from all levels, from superintendents to McKinney Vento liaisons. My work will focus on developing strategies to work with all these important stakeholders at every stage of the Anchor Community Initiative. As we continue to work towards quality, real-time data, it is imperative to work with schools to ensure unaccompanied students experiencing homelessness are included in the By-Name List. Once we have quality data and we begin working on reducing homelessness, we need to partner with schools to implement improvement projects that will reduce student homelessness.

I’m excited to be part of a project with a data-driven approach. Student homelessness exists in every community in our state, and data will help everyone in our state understand that. I am optimistic that our state cares for young people, and that the community will rally to improve outcomes for all students. It is up to every person in Washington state to improve outcomes for all youth and young adults.

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.

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

New outreach efforts put forth will be able to more efficiently identify young people experiencing homelessness in the public school system and behavioral health treatment programs and provide resources to quickly house them. Volunteers of America and the City of Spokane will add 10 new units of transitional housing for young adults, including units that provide medium to long-term rental assistance (usually 18 to 24 months) and support services to help young adults develop the independent living skills needed to secure and maintain permanent housing.

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!