April 2021: Letter from the Executive Director

The last 12 months have been extremely challenging. So many individuals have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. At the center of A Way Home Washington’s work – preventing and ending youth and young adult homelessness – we have seen increased barriers for young people navigating an already complex system.

In our four Anchor Communities – Spokane, Yakima, Walla Walla and Pierce counties – we see the impact of COVID on young people, socially, mentally, economically and physically. Distancing from loved ones, not being able to attend class in-person, 6-foot restrictions at shelters and many other emerging policies have had a direct impact on young people experiencing homelessness. We also see COVID’s impact on service providers as they continue to carry out their duties with passion and to provide support to YYA experiencing homelessness and housing instability.

Our public systems have been challenged to be flexible and respond quickly to COVID. Because of that, we hope that LGBTQ+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer+) and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) young people experiencing homelessness are not left to fall through the cracks of these systems.

Even still, we are optimistic about the future. In the Anchor Communities, we are seeing a flood of support from service providers, private philanthropy, and local governments. Youth and young adults continue to show up to Youth Advisory Board (YAB) meetings and Anchor Community Initiative Core Team meetings to provide feedback and input on processes and systemic changes. Our staff have adapted to remote work, and are working hard to assist communities with finding solutions to these complex issues.

We are also encouraged by the news from Olympia – thanks to your advocacy, renewed funding has been secured for the four communities, keeping us on track to reach “functional zero” by the end of next year. It also seems likely that the Anchor Community Initiative will expand to a new cohort of communities, with other counties in the state building upon the resources and lessons learned of the first four.

Because of these efforts, It’s very clear to me that all of us are here and ready to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness by helping Washington reach a “Yes to Yes” system. 

In closing, I want to share a quote from Azia Ruff, our ACI Coaching and Improvement Coordinator. She has said, “If the system isn’t working for youth and young adults, then the system isn’t working.” These words help center me, and keep all of us focused on why we do this work, as we move further into 2021 and closer to our goal of ending youth homelessness in Washington state. 

My Story: Elsa St. Claire

Hello, my name is Elsa St Clair and I am 24 years old. My journey of homelessness began in
2017 and has been an ongoing battle since I came to Spokane in January 2020 and landed
at Hope House Women’s Shelter, where I stayed there for 5 months. Afterwards, I was able to
move into my current apartment through a Transitional Housing Program called Bridge

A month into staying at Bridge I was asked if I would be interested in participating in a Spokane Youth Advisory Board (YAB) meeting to share my lived experience with
homeless service providers. I knew right away I was on the path to making some big
changes for youth and young adults experiencing housing instability here in Spokane. 

Shortly after I began to attend YAB meetings, I was invited to an Anchor Community Initiative (ACI) Core Team Meeting. I sat in on my first ACI meeting just to listen and learn about what projects they were working on in the city of Spokane. There was a lot of information to absorb. 

In the second ACI Core Team meeting I began to share my input and engage with everyone else– showing what I had to offer to help our city. For me, ACI means helping Spokane’s current and future youth and young adults who are struggling. It also means getting to know community members and connecting with them to dismantle barriers preventing youth from having a roof over their heads. ACI has taken the youth voice seriously in implementing changes in the greater Spokane area and I am proud to be a part of the work taking place.

Diversion: Flexibility Fosters Creativity in Housing Young People

Centralized Diversion Fund (CDF) program houses nearly 170 young people since launch!

There is an underlying misconception in a lot of youth work: People need a whole myriad of services before they can be housed. But in its first 7 months of being launched, the Centralized Diversion Fund (CDF) program is already proving that to be a myth. CDF has already housed 161 young people across all four Anchor Communities in creative, immediate and unique ways that are often not possible with the traditional homeless housing system.

Screenshot of Public CDF Dashboard.

The CDF supports young people who are experiencing housing instability in finding quick, sustainable solutions to those barriers, often preventing homelessness before it starts. At its core, CDF is a strengths-based approach where providers partner with young people to creatively explore and plan for housing options outside of the already taxed homelessness housing system. This is done by providing swift, low-barrier financial  assistance for housing-related hiccups when needed.

Across the four communities, initial demographic data is showing that young people who identify as Hispanic/Latinx represent a large portion of requests at (27%). White young people represent 40 percent of requests, and Black or African American represent 22 percent. (Data got you curious? Check-out the CDF Dashboard here to see real-time data including more on demographics). 

It is all but clear that one population benefiting from CDF most so far is young people who are pregnant and/or parenting, who make up 44 percent of all requests submitted so far. Young families are often left out of many services designed for young people – but that doesn’t happen with CDF. 

In one example, a young parent with a newborn had gotten approved for an apartment but had nowhere to stay until their move-in date that was 3 weeks away. CDF was used to purchase a hotel for that time so this young family could be off the streets and safe until their move-in date. 

CDF can be used for basically anything – provided that the client meets eligibility and there’s a quick and direct pathway to housing outside the homelessness system. Since August, the Anchor Communities have used the flexibility of the program to get creative with housing young people. That includes, but is not limited to: 

  • Helping college students find/maintain stable housing. One young person was staying in shelter and had just enrolled in their local community college. After finding a roommate and place to live closer to campus, CDF was used to help with move-in costs and furniture. They were housed shortly after. 
  • Supporting folks exiting the foster care system. Another young person had just enrolled in extended foster care after exiting foster care (EFC) forced them to stay in a shelter. They were able to identify an apartment to live in that would be supported by EFC  ongoing, but just needed CDF to help with the administrative costs that the EFC was not able to pay for. 
  • Reuniting/reconnecting families – near and far. CDF was used to help a young person relocate to Puerto Rico, where they would reunite with their family, after the young person entered housing instability due to COVID. All that was needed was confirmation from the family in Puerto Rico, plane ticket and plan. 
  • Stabilizing the young person’s family. We already talked about how CDF is creatively housing current and expectant parents, but CDF can also have a ripple effect of benefit for other people in the young person’s network. In one example, a young person wanted to move in with their family member who just didn’t have a big enough space for them. Since this family member only received SSI benefits, they couldn’t afford the necessary re-housing fees for finding a space that worked – even with the young person helping with costs ongoing. CDF was used for the move-in costs for this family to be able to reunite with each other. 

Diversion changes the nature of service delivery by putting the power in the hands of the clients and honoring the fact that they know most about what they need. It allows space for creative housing solutions like those listed above, and others that are yet to even be thought of. Diversion’s low-barrier approach also makes it easier for clients to get the help they need in a more timely manner compared to other assistance programs because they don’t have to go.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Centralized Diversion Fund program and how it’s impacting Anchor Communities, please email us at kserantes@awayhomewa.org

Zooming Along: The 2021 Legislative Session & A Way Home Washington

We recently received great news for the future of the Anchor Community Initiative – and it’s all because of you. For the past two months, you’ve been organizing, contacting your legislators, and making your voices heard. And our champions in the legislature were listening.

Both the Senate and House have joined Governor Inslee and included an expansion of the Anchor Community Initiative (ACI) in their budgets. It is very likely this will be in the final budget passed by both chambers – with this funding, the ACI can expand to additional communities across Washington.

At the same time, both budgets include renewed funding for the original four Anchor Communities, meaning that the work can continue in Spokane, Pierce, Yakima, and Walla Walla counties. We are on our way to reaching “yes to yes” and ending youth and young adult homelessness in these four communities by the end of next year.

We have only reached this point because of the power of your organizing and advocacy. Every time you sent an email to your legislators, attended a meeting, shared a tweet, or spoke to your community, you were moving ACI expansion closer to reality. Just last week, we were honored to have two rallies attended by dozens of supporters from across Washington who heard from First Lady Trudi Inslee, our legislative champions, and young advocates.

Your input and feedback is one of the most powerful and impactful tools there is in influencing the legislature. So, thank you for using your voice on behalf of youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. You made a difference!

While we are celebrating the positive budget news this week, the work isn’t over. There is still a month of legislative session, and we have to keep the pressure on to make sure the ACI stays in the budget all the way to final passage. Now, we can thank our champion legislators and urge them to keep up the fight. Senators Christine Rolfes, June Robinson, Andy Billig, Jeannie Darneille, and T’wina Nobles, and Representatives Timm Ormsby, Lisa Callan, Frank Chopp, and Tarra Simmons deserve our thanks!

If you’re able, send a quick message thanking our champions and urging them to keep up the fight on Anchor Community Initiative expansion in the final budget.

Other updates and thoughts: The 2021 legislative session has been “zooming” along – literally and metaphorically. This being the first fully virtual session, including committee meetings, floor action and meetings with legislators, it has been an exercise in modern technology. Perhaps the refrain, “You’re on mute,” has never been heard so often by so many. 

Also notable about the 2021 legislative session is the incredible impact of the diversity of lawmakers within the body. Having so many legislators who are people of color, combined with the impact of being all-virtual and eliminating barriers to travel to Olympia, has resulted in many more people of color testifying on proposed bills that have informed the debate in a powerfully positive way. Bills such as law enforcement reform, landlord-tenant relations, and adding a progressive capital gains tax have been front and center with the diversity of public testimony being exponentially more interesting and valuable than in years past.

As we march forward these last few weeks of the 2021 session, we do so convinced that the best way to end adult homelessness is to end youth and young adult homelessness. We are building a “Yes to Yes” system in Washington so that when young people say “Yes, I need support,” their local communities can say in return “Yes, come inside for safe housing and a path forward”.  Come join us!  Young people and families are relying on all of US. Thank you for all that you do.

Yakima: The First Community to Use Student Stability Innovation Grants

We are so excited to let you know that we recently launched our newest project to end unaccompanied student homelessness – Student Stability Innovation Grants. YAKIMA is the FIRST community to submit a grant request and it has been APPROVED!!!!

Yakima Neighborhood Health Services will test the use of peer social media influencers to outreach and engage LGBTQ+ unaccompanied students experiencing homelessness in Yakima County, to increase requests for prevention, housing and support services. Grant funds will pay two young people to engage their peers on social media during the summer months when unaccompanied students are harder to reach. The influencers will craft posts, accurately respond to questions, and generate ideas for engaging their followers. 

The test period is July-September 2021 and the goal is to increase the number of street outreach enrollments of unaccompanied LGBTQ+ students by 20%. Their baseline data will be the amount of enrollments they have documented from the same time period in 2020.

Student Stability Innovation Grants

The Student Stability Innovation Grants project provides a limited number of grants up to $5,000 per project for Anchor Communities to test truly innovative system changes to prevent and end housing instability for unaccompanied students aged 12-24.

Core Teams can find all the necessary documents, tools and webforms on the Innovation Grants Page on our Resource Hub

Student Stability Innovation Grants Forms

*Printable version in the Guidelines

Student Stability Innovation Grants Resources

We are so excited for the first of many out-of-the-box change ideas to move our communities closer to ending student homelessness, and homelessness for all unaccompanied young people!

If you have any questions, please reach out to Ashley, ACI Project Director at abarnes-cocke@awayhomewa.org

ACI: Pierce County– Increasing Housing Placement Rates By 30%

Congratulations to Pierce County on achieving the of their first reducing process measure—increasing housing placement rates by 30% by the end of September 2020. With assistance from the ACI Coaching team, Pierce County set this goal and began working on it in mid-June. A big factor in choosing this goal was the level of success and ease of implementation that they have seen from other communities across the country that were working with one of our partner agencies—Community Solutions. Consistently increasing housing placements is critical for communities to see reductions in homelessness overall in their systems

Pierce County leaned into this reducing goal, and three workgroups were created:

  1. Maximizing Diversion Success
  2. Increasing permanent housing exits
  3. Accessible housing programs

The Increasing Permanent Housing Exits workgroup conducted a focus group with youth and young adults in Pierce County to understand what they need to remain housed once they transition into permanent housing. The Maximizing Diversion Success subcommittee focused on ensuring the right service providers in Pierce County were trained to access the CDF resource.

Increasing the quality of data collection has been a tremendously helpful resource to communities during the reducing phase. In addition, the Pierce County Core Team increased the frequency that they updated their housing placement data so that they could see week-by-week breakdowns. These frequent updates allowed the Core Team to be aware of how many youths and young adults were exiting homelessness in real time.

Now that Piece County has achieved their first reducing process measure, they have moved on to their new goal of reducing homelessness for youth of color by 30% by March 2021. Going forward, Pierce County is thinking about what other reducing projects that they can implement that are more influenced by the outcomes of the homeless system and what needs to be done to reach a functional end to youth homelessness by the end of 2022. Every goal communities hit should be intentional about positively moving the data to see a reduction in the amount of youth coming into the system and an increase in those exiting.

Housing More QTBIPOC

Anchor Communities are entering the second  stage in the work to end youth and young adult homelessness: Reducing homelessness. Two communities, Pierce and Walla Walla, have achieved quality, real-time data, and Yakima and Spokane aren’t far behind. This incredible milestone also contributes to the advancement of our racial and LGBTQ+ equity plan.

With quality data, communities get a clear picture of the disparities that young Queer, Trans, Black, Indigenous People of Color (QTBIPOC) experience. Some examples of the disparities that exist in homelessness systems are: Young QTBIPOC returning to homelessness at greater rates, being placed in permanent housing at lower rates, and spending longer times experiencing homelessness than their white, straight, cisgender peers. Our definition of ending homelessness, functional zero, requires an end to all these disparities.

Moving into the reducing phase means that communities will plan and implement improvement projects meant to decrease the number of young people experiencing homelessness and leverage their data to evaluate whether these projects are making an impact. This positions the Anchor Community Initiative at the right moment to set goals aimed directly at reducing disparities for QTBIPOC. That’s why we set a goal directly aimed at this issue during our latest bi-annual strategy session: House more QTBIPOC.

To accomplish this goal, we will coach our Anchor Communities in the following areas:

  • Analysis: Quality data has the power to shine a light on disparities. We will help communities leverage their By-Name List data and insights provided by youth and young adults to identify root causes of disproportionality in their systems.
  • Action: Equipped with insights, Anchor Community teams have all the tools they need to work on improvement projects that address the root causes of disproportionality and move towards equitable outcomes for QTBIPOC.
  • Skill-building: To take action, team members will need to gain knowledge about racial and LGBTQ+ justice and confidence in facilitating conversations about equity work. We’ve added a Training Manager to our team to support these needs.

Concentrating our efforts on housing QTBIPOC will ultimately prepare communities to house all young people. When we focus on supporting the populations who face the most barriers to permanent housing, we end up creating a system that works better for everyone. It’s a strategy that follows john a. powell’s concept of targeted universalism.

The best moment to take action on disproportionality by  housing more QTBIPOC is right now. We’ve seen the global COVID-19 pandemic only amplify  existing inequities across almost every facet of our society, and especially for young people experiencing homelessness. Centering anti-racism in our strategy, data analysis and improvement projects is urgent and our Anchor Communities are rising to the occasion.

Walla Walla’s Data Journey

Quality, real-time data is the cornerstone of the Anchor Community Initiative. Our Data & Evaluation Manager, Vishesh Jain, shares how Walla Walla achieved this milestone.

In February, Walla Walla became the first Anchor Community to complete the Youth and Young Adult By-Name List Scorecard. This meant that Walla Walla could definitively say that their community participation, policies and procedures, and data infrastructure were set up to accurately identify ALL unaccompanied youth and young adults in the community. The team then set their sights on the next key milestone: Achieving quality, real-time data.

To achieve quality, real-time data, a community must complete the Youth and Young Adult By-Name List Scorecard AND record three months in a row of reliable data. This means that actively homeless, inflow, and outflow numbers are balanced. For example:

Data is considered reliable if the actively homeless number is within a 15% margin of the expected number based on the prior month’s actively homeless number and the current month’s net change. When Walla Walla began tracking their data reliability, their numbers were once 1200% greater than expected! The community’s Anchor Community team created a Data Workgroup and embarked on a journey to polish their data practices.

At the beginning of their journey, Walla Walla faced several challenges. Communities access homeless system data through the Homeless System Information System (HMIS), but as a community without their own Continuum of Care, Walla Walla does not have a local HMIS manager. The community worked with the Department of Commerce to receive monthly reports, but the community could not directly access the data to shape the reports.

Initially, Anchor Community Initiative Coordinator Sam Jackle manually calculated inflow, outflow, and actively homeless numbers based on the reports, which opened the possibility for human error in the calculations. Furthermore, the Data Workgroup realized that the definitions the Department of Commerce used in the report did not always match the information the community needed to draw from the report. For example, the Anchor Community Initiative includes young people who are couch surfing/doubled up and in temporary housing  as actively homeless, so we had to make sure that these young people were included in the report.

“Working with the data has always been a challenge because we have limited capacity here in Walla Walla,” said Sam. “Shifting the work to a more collaborative mindset with the Data Workgroup and with added Data and Evaluation capacity at A Way Home Washington really helped accelerate our progress.”

The Data Workgroup combed through the report and the numbers on a weekly basis. Through this process, the team was able to define what they needed in reporting, and then work with the Department of Commerce on creating a report that met these requirements. Once this report was created, I developed a Tableau dashboard connected to Department of Commerce data where Sam can access the numbers she needs without any manual calculations.

Tableau dashboards that accurately reflect data from Commerce’s data sources

 

“I’m so proud of our group for making it to quality data and the spirit of collaboration that led us there,” said Amanda Fowler, Data Workgroup member LOFT Administrator. “It’s been really inspiring to work with the team, and after watching the collaboration unfold in real-time, I have complete faith that we will be able to meet our goals in ending youth homelessness.”

In September, the team’s efforts paid off: Their data was reliable for three months in a row, and the team achieved quality, real-time data! Now, the community can trust that they have an accurate picture of the young people experiencing homelessness each month. As Walla Walla starts testing different reduction improvement projects, quality data will be invaluable in helping the team evaluate the effectiveness of their projects and determine where to allocate their time and resources.

Spokane Tests Improvements to Coordinated Entry

Now that all Anchor Communities are on a path to achieve quality, real-time data, communities have started testing new strategies to reduce homelessness. In Spokane, the community’s Coordinated Entry Diversion Workgroup and Youth Advisory Board (YAB) are collaborating to test simple changes to the Coordinated Entry process and measure their impact on reducing homelessness.

Coordinated Entry is the first interaction a young person has with a service provider regarding their housing crisis. Service providers ask a series of questions to assess a young people’s needs and determine how to best connect them with resources. However, the team observed that the next steps after Coordinated Entry were unclear to many young people, and as a result many never had a second contact with a service provider. After 90 days of no contact, a young person’s status is moved to “inactive,” and if they are still experiencing a housing crisis, they would need to complete the Coordinated Entry assessment again.

YAB members suggested that the problem may be that young people leave the Coordinated Entry process without a clear understanding of what next steps to expect. They suggested testing a simple new tool: The Coordinated Entry Next Step Form. The form is a tangible resource young people can take with them, listing the date when the Coordinated Entry assessment was conducted, the date 90 days later when it will expire, a contact person that they can reach with questions or access support, and general information around possible next steps and things to work on while they wait to hear back from service providers.

“This project is so important because so many of the youth and young adults who meet with someone for a Coordinated Entry appointment leave feeling confused and unsure what should be happening next,” said Julius Henrichsen, Youth Homelessness Coordinator at Volunteers of America. “Youth input got this project started, and we’ve received incredibly valuable feedback on how this should look directly from youth experts.”

Outreach staff in Volunteer of America’s YouthReach program and SNAP began using the Coordinated Entry Next Step Form in mid-July. After two weeks, the team reconvened to evaluate results. During that time, 11 heads of household under 25 went through a Coordinated Entry assessment. Of that group, only one person qualified to receive the Coordinated Entry Next Step Form, since it was specifically formulated for unaccompanied young people experiencing homelessness. The team concluded that a longer, 90-day testing period will be required to truly measure results, reviewing progress every two weeks.

This project exemplifies many of Anchor Community Initiative’s core values:

  • Youth leadership. The idea for the project came directly from young people. YAB members reflected on their own experiences with Coordinated Entry and identified improvements to boost its effectiveness. They also shaped the creation of the form and provided insight on what would work best for young people. For instance, the form is printed on a half-sheet that young people can fold and easily fit in a pocket, for easy portability and to keep the information on the form private. “We felt it was important to understand youth perspective and hear feedback on where there has been confusion before in the process to secure stable housing,” said Amy Johnson, Housing Specialist at SNAP. “We wanted to make this resource a user-friendly, pocket sized document that clearly identified next steps.”
  • Data-driven. The team identified a clear metric to evaluate the project: Tracking the number of young people whose status changes to inactive. If this number goes down after adopting the Coordinated Entry Next Step Form, the community has a clear indication that providing more information during the early stages of the Coordinated Entry process has a positive impact.
  • Following improvement science principles. These principles guide communities to test changes that are small and measurable. This way, communities can quickly implement changes and determine if the changes made an impact on homelessness numbers. Then, communities can iterate and build on changes that have proven effective.

We are eager to see Anchor Communities test more strategies and learn what sorts of changes lead to reductions in homelessness!

Our Definition of Ending Youth and Young Adult Homelessness

What does it mean to end youth and young adult homelessness? In the Anchor Community Initiative, we define ending youth and young adult homelessness as reaching functional zero – a state where a community’s youth and young adult homelessness system has the capacity to house every young person experiencing homelessness each month.

Exact definitions for functional zero are tailored to local communities and to specific populations. For example, reaching functional zero for youth and young adults looks different from reaching functional zero for chronic homelessness. Generally, definitions of functional zero call for communities to have enough housing, services, and shelter beds for everyone in the community who needs support. Common goals include increasing permanent housing, reducing, or eliminating unsheltered homelessness, decreasing returns to the homelessness system, and reducing the length of time that people experience homelessness.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) provides benchmarks for ending youth and young adult homelessness. The Anchor Community Initiative’s functional zero measures are based on these benchmarks, with the addition of equity measures. We believe that communities cannot achieve an end to youth homelessness without also ending disproportionality.

Disproportionality means that young BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folx experience homelessness at higher rates than their white, heterosexual, cisgender peers. For example, in our 2018 landscape scan we found that while 4% of the population in Washington state is Black, Black young people represented 24% of youth in the homeless system. Aside from experiencing higher rates of homelessness, these young people also experience systemic and institutional racism, resulting in lower rates of placements into permanent housing, a higher rate of returns to homelessness, and longer time experiencing homelessness compared to their peers.

Our definition of functional zero takes these disparities into account. To get to functional zero, Anchor Communities must ensure that young BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folx:

  • Return to homelessness at equal or lower rate than their peers
  • Are housed at the same or higher rate than their peers
  • Spend equal or less time experiencing homelessness than their peers

Coaching our Anchor Communities to these functional zero and zero disproportionality measures keeps racial and LGBTQ+ equity embedded into the core of our work. Achieving these outcomes requires Anchor Communities to consider the impact to young BIPOC and LGBTQ+ folx in their reduction strategies and improvement projects. This approach helps team members identify and address the root causes of disproportionality and inequitable outcomes, helping us create a world where homelessness can truly be eradicated.