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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.