What a Data-Driven Culture Means to Us

At A Way Home Washington, our core values include equity, youth partnership, trauma-informed practice and a data-driven culture. Our Data and Evaluation Director, Liz, writes about how data informs our work at A Way Home Washington.

You don’t count unless you’re counted.” It’s a common refrain in the data community, and for me it gets to the root of why we need data to achieve racial and LGBTQ+ equity. Data gives us the information we need to make informed decisions and to evaluate whether our initiatives are yielding equitable outcomes.

Data is the foundation of the Anchor Community Initiative. It all starts with a question that seems simple: “How many young people are experiencing homelessness in your community?” But we hear from our communities that answering this question is much more complex than it seems. It requires developing new processes to collect and analyze data, updating data infrastructure and building partnerships and protocols across all public systems of care. The first stage of the Anchor Community Initiative is about laying down the groundwork to answer this question in real time.

Liz taking her data expertise to the next level at the 2019 Tableau Conference

But the data work doesn’t stop there. It’s not enough to know how many young people are experiencing homelessness. We also need to know their race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity so we can address any disparities in their experiences. Are young people of color experiencing homelessness at higher rates? Are LGBQ young people returning to homelessness at higher rates? Are trans young people spending a longer time experiencing homelessness? Data will help us answer these questions and shine a light on equity issues within our system.

For this work to be effective, we need to ask critical questions of our data. Otherwise, inequities can hide behind the numbers, or a population may be entirely absent from our data set. This was the case at a national data conference I attended last year, where a Continuum of Care presented their data. I noticed that demographic data such as race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity was not included in their data dashboards. When I asked the presenter about it, she said that they had no LGBTQ+ young people showing up in their data. She concluded that the community “didn’t have any LGBTQ+ young people”.

I cannot stress enough that just because a population, or multiple populations, are not showing up in data does not mean that they don’t exist. In our coaching work with Anchor Communities, we are asking constantly asking: Is the data accurate? Is our system counting everyone? Are we collecting data in a respectful and responsive way? The answer to all of these questions needs to be “yes” because the next stage of our work will be using this data to drive towards an equitable end to youth and young adult homelessness.

I’m extremely proud of the work that Anchor Communities are doing to embed a data-driven culture centered on racial and LGBTQ+ equity. Recently, Yakima made the local decision to collect sexual orientation data at youth and young adult Coordinated Entry access points. This change is an excellent example of how starting with data can lead to community-wide culture shifts. Ultimately, these shifts will create safer and more supportive environments for all young people experiencing homelessness, and especially for young people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+.

What Trauma-Informed Practice Means to Us

At A Way Home Washington, our core values include equity, youth partnership, a data-driven culture and trauma-informed practice. Our Coaching and Improvement Manager, Ashley, writes about how trauma informs our work at A Way Home Washington.

“When you get housed, staff is constantly hounding you to get a job and make the rent. When I was on the streets I couldn’t break down and fall apart, I had to stay strong every second. Now I’m in housing and feel safe for the first time in years, and I just need to lock myself in my room and feel my feelings. But no, they kick you out for that.”

This is how one young person described their experience in housing programs to me when I worked at The Mockingbird Society. I got to work closely with young people who exited homelessness into housing programs, and I heard stories of young people who were continually kicked out of shelter and housing. One lost their housing for three days after they returned smelling like weed. Another asked for a night away to attend their dad’s wedding, had their request denied and then got kicked out for going anyway. Yet another was asked to leave for being behind on their “productive hours.”

Trauma is ubiquitous and ongoing for young people experiencing homelessness. Young people of color and LGBTQ+ young folks must also survive racism, homophobia and transphobia while experiencing trauma. Feeling unsafe for long periods of time causes people to stay in a state of hypervigilance, or what young people call ‘survival mode’. They need to constantly watch their backs and focus on surviving the next night, so situations that may not feel threatening to a person who has not experienced trauma may lead to bigger reactions than housing program staff expect.

These are extremely difficult experiences, and young people are not healed the second they get housed. They can’t just switch off from survival mode immediately. Yet our programs and services are constructed as if they could. We want young people working, paying rent and being “productive” as soon as possible once they’re housed. We aren’t prepared to respond to young people’s reactions when they’re still living in survival mode. We expect them to live inside, often in group settings, with no peer conflict and with totally new coping mechanisms.

A system designed to serve young people wouldn’t result in so much cycling through programs. The fact that young people are able to navigate these systems that weren’t designed with their needs in mind is a testament to their resilience. In many cases, young people are relying on their own strength to survive and thrive despite of the system, not because of it.   

The Adolescent Health Working Group provider toolkit on trauma is a helpful resource

We need to transform the system and stop treating young people like their trauma will abruptly end the second they’re housed. On the individual level, we need to work with young people in ways that take their traumatic experiences into account, and we need to recognize their trauma responses for what they are. At a societal level, we need to dismantle toxic systems, policies and practices that create environments primed for trauma.

At A Way Home Washington, we are committed to transforming our statewide system in partnership with young people themselves. We need a system that sees each young person as whole, capable, smart and deserving. We want to address the root causes of homelessness and trauma to create a Yes to Yes system with the capacity to support each young person in the way each young person needs to be supported.

Recently, I attended a Learning Session hosted by Community Solutions. During one of the workshops, the facilitator asked participants to list the barriers to housing people may experience. The answers were familiar: No job. Refuses housing. Mental illness. And then, the facilitator asked us to change the way we think about these barriers. Instead of seeing these characteristics as barriers that keep people from being housed, we should think about the barriers our systems put up to keep people with these characteristics from being housed.

The Anchor Community Initiative is working to actively identify the barriers keeping their local systems from being responsive to young people. Communities then address these barriers through coaching and support from experts. If a barrier is too big for a single community to solve, we work in partnership with the Office of Homeless Youth to advocate for policy and funding changes at the state level. Through this approach, we know that we’ll be able to build trauma-informed Yes to Yes systems.

What Youth Partnership Means to Us

At A Way Home Washington, our core values include equity, youth partnership, a data-driven culture and trauma-informed practice. Our Coaching and Improvement Manager, Ashley, writes about what youth partnership means at A Way Home Washington.

In the youth homelessness world, we know that we need the expertise of young people with lived experience to improve systems. Throughout my entire career, I’ve worked in spaces that seek to empower youth. In that time, I’ve seen my share of missteps when it comes to youth engagement, and I’ve seen what it takes to achieve positive youth engagement.

 Some organizations operate under the premise that any access to leadership opportunities is good for young people, even when they haven’t had a say in shaping these opportunities. I’ve been shocked to see organizations lead Youth Advocacy Days with no policy agenda, much less one written by young people. In these instances, the opportunity to talk to state representatives is seen as benefit enough for young people.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen organizations gather input and recommendations from young people only to keep them out of project implementation. I remember one focus group where young people were invited to give their interpretation of a third-party dataset, and they spoke passionately on the topic. Afterwards, the facilitators never followed up with young people as they wrote a report based on their insights – a report that continues to be referenced nationally. I’ve seen this type of situation time and time again, where young people deliver important insights without their expertise being valued in the same way as that of older folks. They don’t get to own the ideas or products they’ve informed, and they’re not treated as partners in the work.

In a sector that’s committed to youth voice, choice and leadership, we can’t keep repeating these patterns. Young people with diverse experiences and identities must be involved in our work from idea to implementation. In these instances, young people can grow their skills, build connections and move toward stability, AND our systems improve through their involvement.

In the Anchor Community Initiative, we are working alongside young people and the community to re-imagine what co-creation means. Each Anchor Community team includes at least two young people with lived experience, and in the next phase of work we want to take youth partnership to the next level by:

Ashley poses for a selfie with Sierra, one of our youth partnership consultants

1)      Engaging a diverse group of young people. We’re building out youth engagement plans to make sure that multiple young people, with a diversity of experiences and identities, are involved in Anchor Community work.

2)      Developing young people as co-leaders. We’re helping communities move beyond simply having youth representation on their teams, and into co-creating meeting agendas, co-facilitating meetings and having key roles in the implementation of improvement projects.

I am thankful that it’s becoming the norm in the youth homelessness world to include young people with lived experience in the creation of the systems that will impact their lives. It is heartening to see older folks invite young people to their meetings and initiatives. But we need to be clear that this is only the first step in our journey to co-creating solutions with young people.

When we work with young people, we need to let go of the expectation that they need to adapt to older folks’ way of doing things. Our workplace norms were created according to the dominant culture – that means they align to the preferences of men, white people, older adults and so on. If we’re serious about working in partnership with young people – and to end youth and young adult homelessness we have to be! – we need to co-create spaces so everyone can be a full, respected participant in the process.

Why We Say Latinx

As an organization, we value equity and engaging communities in culturally sensitive ways. Our Communications Director, Sully, reflects on the importance of the words we use in our efforts to be an equitable and inclusive organization.

As a communications professional and an advocate for racial equity, I know that words have power. I carefully consider what every word I write for A Way Home Washington conveys about our organization’s values. I will always write about young people experiencing homelessness – not about “kids” or “the homeless” – because our values reject adultism and dehumanization. That care went into choosing the word Latinx for our organizational voice.

At the Central American Festival with a fellow Panamanian wearing one of our traditional dresses

I’ve spent a long time thinking about what it means to be Latinx. I was born and raised in Panama, and for the first nineteen years of my life, I was simply Panamanian. I moved to the United States as a college student, and I remember the exact moment when I realized that here, my identity was more complicated. My university offered a course called Hispanic Marketing, and a classmate asked me if I could complete a survey for US Hispanics to help her with an assignment for that course. As an international student, I did not feel that I fit in that label. But my classmate assured me that anyone living in the United States with ties to Latin America was considered a US Hispanic.

Since then, so many layers and nuance have been added to the way I identify. In my heart, I will always be Panamanian. But after ten years in the United States, I’ve learned that when people of color stand together, we are much stronger in our fight for justice. So I also identify as an immigrant, a person of color and a Latinx person.

I chose the word Latinx for myself because it aligns with my values. It is a word that was created by the community, unlike Hispanic, which was created by the US government. Spanish is a gendered language where every noun is either masculine or feminine, including nouns used to refer to people like Latino and Latina. When there is a group of mixed gender, even if it is a group of 9 people who identify as female and one who identifies as male, the group is always referred to as masculine. Using Latino to refer to the whole community centers masculinity, while Latinx decenters masculinity. Latinx also makes room for all gender identities and expressions since it is neither a masculine nor a feminine word. In a culture where LGBTQ+ identity is still stigmatized, I find it very important to stand with people who identify outside the gender binary. For all these reasons, it also felt right to choose Latinx for A Way Home Washington.

Now, it’s important to also recognize that the Latinx community is made of people with a wide variety of experiences, opinions and stories. That means that there is no community consensus on how to label our identity – look no further than the comment thread on any community website that uses the word Latinx to see the full range of emotion it stirs up. When it comes to individual people, we should always refer to them using the words they choose for themselves. But when we talk about the whole community, I choose the word that is most inclusive.

Racial equity is a journey with lots of learning along the way. That means we always need to be open to hearing different ways of thinking. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on the idea that words like Latino and Latinx erase the indigenous roots of so many people from Latin America. If a few years from now, the community creates a new term that is even more inclusive than Latinx, my understanding of my identity and my community may continue to evolve, and the words I choose may change. Until then, I continue to be fiercely, proudly, loudly Latinx.

What Equity Means to Us

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

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

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

Putting our heads together at an Equity Committee meeting

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

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

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

The Time Is Right for Structural Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Partner Spotlight: CCYJ on Justice for LGBTQ+ Young People

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

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

The faces behind eQuality at their team convening

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

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

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

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

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

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