Welcoming Meriça Whitehall, new Interim Executive Director of A Way Home Washington


Since October of 2023, A Way Home Washington (AWHWA) Strategic Communications Director, Ben Sung Henry, has served as Interim Executive Director during Julie Patiño’s continuing leave. Thanks to the leadership of Ben and many others, AWHWA is now in a place to continue moving forward in our mission to reduce and ultimately end unaccompanied youth and young adult homelessness in Washington.

It is with great honor that we welcome Meriça Whitehall as the new interim Executive Director of A Way Home Washington, who has assumed the role effective Feb. 26.

Meriça is an experienced and human-centered leader who will partner with us to stabilize and sustain our growth, increase our visibility, strengthen our work, and further build our team. She brings more than 25 years of experience empowering teams, strengthening organizational operations, improving financial performance, and planning and implementing long-term strategy.

Most recently, Meriça served as YouthCare’s Interim COO and Hugo House’s Interim COO and Interim Executive Director. She also previously served as the Executive Director of Fontenelle Forest in Bellevue, Nebraska, where she spearheaded the creation of a 20-year master plan and completed development of new revenue streams, capital projects, and acquisitions.

Meriça earned an Executive Master’s Degree in Nonprofit Leadership from Seattle University, where she taught frameworks for community engagement as a faculty member following completion of her degree.

Times of change may come and go, but the unshakeable soul of A Way Home Washington is its north-star constant, the fixed point our eyes never waver from — the moment when we’ll see safety and housing stability for every young person in this state. We are inspired to look around our community and see that light burning in your eyes too. Thank you for the passion and strength you all share with us and with each other.

The Intersection Between Homelessness and Foster Care

“We have a long way to go, but every bit of advocacy that our agencies get involved in helps to change the lives of those who have experienced severe trauma, and they deserve a chance for success.”

Sara Mack
Managing Director of Foster Youth
Volunteers of America Eastern WA & Northern Idaho

With May being National Foster Care Month, we are reminded of how youth and young adult homelessness intersects with other systems. The foster care system often intertwines with the youth and young adult homeless systems, creating touchpoints that funnel young people from one system to the next. 

At A Way Home Washington, we prioritize looking at bigger systems and their intersection with youth and young adult homelessness, while working in partnership with local communities to address systems gaps. Ensuring that young people do not exit public systems of care into homelessness is a key part of our prevention strategy.

Programs such as the Independent Youth Housing Program (IYHP) are designed to minimize the number of young people exiting foster care into homelessness. According to Sara Mack, Managing Director of Foster Youth at Volunteers of America Eastern WA & Northern Idaho, the program offers young people supportive services and teaches them life skills such as cooking, cleaning, and how to budget and pay rent. Staff in the program also teach young people how to work through renter’s rights and responsibilities. Because the program is helping to stabilize youth exiting foster care, it also serves to prevent young people from experiencing homelessness.

“It is a good bridge for young adults who have not experienced living on their own and want to leave their foster placements,” Sara says.

According to a new report published by DSHS, 17 percent of young people in foster care experience homelessness within 12 months of aging out of the system in Washington. That’s roughly one in six. While that number might seem high, it actually represents a major improvement. Just two years ago, the number of young people exiting foster care into homelessness was a staggering 29 percent. 

To that end, our ACI team is working closely with each Anchor Community to ensure that a local representative from the state agency that oversees the foster care system is present at regularly occurring inter-system conversations geared toward finding innovative solutions and bridging systems gaps. 

IYHP providers like Sara are also present at those regularly occurring conversations to further ensure that we are closing the pipeline from foster care to youth and young adult homelessness. Not only are they present in conversations at the community level, but each community has stepped up to help change the landscape for Washington to functionally end homelessness for ALL young people.

Despite the progress we’ve seen, we still have quite a way to go to ensure that no young person exits foster care into homelessness.

“I have seen the transformation that Washington State has done for foster youth since 2007 and it has been great to see our state take an interest in changing the system,” Sara says. “We have a long way to go, but every bit of advocacy that our agencies get involved in helps to change the lives of those who have experienced severe trauma, and they deserve a chance for success.”

December 2021 Newsletter

Our December newsletter looks back at advancements made in 2021 to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness, along with a preview of what’s on tap for 2022. Read it here

November 2021 Newsletter

Check out our November Newsletter with highlights of new staff, as well as our new COVID dashboard that details the impacts of the pandemic on young people experiencing homelessness and housing instability. Read it here

October 2021 Newsletter

Read our October Newsletter with highlights of our Centralized Diversion Fund and information about expansion of the Anchor Communities Initiative. Read it here

2021 CDF Press Release

New Report Demonstrates Effectiveness of Flexible Diversion Funds for Young People At Risk of Homelessness

‘30 in 30’ challenge leads to 86 young people in Pierce, Spokane, Yakima, and Walla Walla counties prevented from entering the homelessness system or diverted out last month

WASHINGTON – A Way Home Washington (AWHWA), the campaign to prevent and end youth and young adult homelessness in Washington state, released an eye-opening new report explaining and demonstrating achievements of the Centralized Diversion Fund (CDF) pilot, a program that provides flexible payments made to prevent young people from experiencing homelessness or divert young people from homelessness within 30 days.

The report – The A Way Home Washington Centralized Diversion Fund: Using Flexible Funds to Prevent and End Youth and Young Adult Homelessness in Washington State was prepared for the Schultz Family Foundation, which serves as a key funder of the CDF along with the state Office of Homeless Youth. The report outlines the successes of the pilot program since its launch in August 2020 in Pierce, Spokane, Yakima, and Walla Walla counties. At press time in late May, the CDF had resulted in more than 220 young people finding a housing solution. 96% of people who exited homelessness did not return within three months. More than half were young people of color.

“Ending youth homelessness is not just about helping someone exit homelessness, it requires reaching a young person before they ever enter the homelessness system,” said Julie Patiño, Executive Director of A Way Home Washington. “By spending a relatively small amount of money now, we are able to creatively remove small barriers and end a young person’s housing crisis. In doing so, you save an incredible amount of time and resources later on – but most importantly, you might be saving someone’s life. The Centralized Diversion Fund is also an important tool to ensure young people of color and LGBTQ youth can access the unique housing resources that they need to move out of the homelessness system.”

A diversion fund is a flexible pool of money that can be drawn upon by youth workers in consultation with their clients – in this case, young people experiencing housing instability and at risk of not having a place to live. With the CDF, anyone who works with young people can be trained to administer diversion services, coupled with help for anything that might execute a housing plan, such as acquiring a state-issued identification card, filling out job applications, and applying for student financial aid. The CDF can be used for anything that will result in a young person being housed outside of the homelessness system. Examples include paying for child care so that a young parent can go to work and stabilize their housing situation, paying for a rental security deposit so that a young person can move into a new home, or  countless other creative solutions.

From May 20 to June 20, AWHWA worked with the four Anchor Communities – Pierce, Spokane, Yakima, and Walla Walla counties – to create an additional proof-of-concept for the CDF by launching the “30 Diversions In 30 Days” campaign. ‘30 In 30’ challenged each community to divert 30 young people out of homelessness during the 30 day period, using CDF funds and innovative housing solutions. In total, the communities broke expectations and served 86 young people over the 30 day stretch.

Elisha P., a Homeless Youth and Young Adult Services Navigator for Blue Mountain Action Council in Walla Walla, personally housed 19 people from May 20 to June 20. Elisha said, “As someone with my own experience of housing instability and young adult homelessness, I know that diversion is such a powerful tool beyond monetary measure. The real value is in the conversation that helps build a stronger connection between the young person and me. Connection and trust lends itself to some pretty amazing solutions. I can really lean in and create a space for the young person to share with me who they are and where they want to be. With that knowledge, I can sit in the passenger seat and help them find their own resolution. Diversion funding is what allows me to say “Yes!” when they identify a housing solution and make their creative idea a reality.”

AWHWA’s Anchor Community Initiative (ACI) that created the Centralized Diversion Fund is in the midst of a multi-year effort to functionally end youth and young adult homelessness in the four communities mentioned above – achieving “yes to yes,” where communities are able to stably house every young person experiencing homelessness quickly. Thanks to leadership from Governor Jay Inslee, AWHWA Co-Chair First Lady Trudi Inslee, and legislative leaders, state funding for the ACI was renewed this year for another budget biennium. At the same time, the state’s final budget includes funding to expand the ACI into new communities across the state. AWHWA will make announcements later this year about the future of ACI expansion, along with likely expansion of the CDF.

For more information (non press inquiries) about the Anchor Community Initiative and Centralized Diversion Fund, reach out to Ashley Barnes-Cocke at abarnes-cocke@awayhomewa.org.

May 2021: Letter from the Executive Director

The 2021 legislative session recently ended, and we are thankful that funding for the Anchor Community Initiative (ACI) is in the final budget! This funding total is $8 million– $4 million for pre-existing communities and $4 million for ACI expansion. The funding is ongoing and not one time, which is a remarkable endorsement from the legislature for the ACI model. No young person should experience homelessness, but if they do– we hope that it will be rare, brief and one time. 

Thank you to our champions in the House and Senate– Representatives Timm Ormsby, Nicole Macri, Lisa Callan and Frank Chopp, and Senators Andy Billig, Christine Rolfes, June Robinson, T’wina Nobles and Jeannie Darneille. Thank you to the First Lady and Co-Chair of A Way Home Washington, Trudi Inslee for your leadership and support, as well as to Governor Jay Inslee for ensuring that ACI support was part of his budget from the onset of session. Also, many thanks to each and every one of you who came to our weekly legislative community updates and contacted your legislators. Your support has been invaluable and because of you, the ACI will continue to be stronger than ever. 

In other news, the ACI is making great progress in our original communities of Spokane, Walla Walla, Yakima and Pierce counties. I am very proud of the coaching and data support that our staff are providing to Anchor Communities. I am also proud of the way that the communities continue to show up and find new, creative and innovative ways to respond to systemic inadequacies. Youth and young adults are showing up in many different parts of the work and doing so in partnership with service providers to reduce the number of young people experiencing homelessness. 

Over the last several years, the communities have made amazing progress to reach their goal of ending youth homelessness by the end of next year.

Spokane County service providers doubled housing placements in October and have been sustaining that increase over the past five months. Spokane now has staff dedicated to outreach with system partners (such as schools and behavioral health) to prevent homelessness.

Walla Walla County has diversion resources and street outreach for the first time ever as a result of ACI state funding. They have also started reduction efforts through the use of ‘case conferencing’ with youth and young adults who have been identified by real-time, quality data as experiencing homeless.

Yakima County is collecting SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity & Expression) data for all populations to better understand how they can serve the most vulnerable populations. They were also the first to come up with an idea for how to use creative funds to address homelessness for students through A Way Home Washington’s Student Stability Innovation Grants process.

Pierce County has built a custom data transformation tool to enable service providers to more accurately track and use data. They also have the most people trained across their system to facilitate access to the Centralized Diversion Fund (CDF)- a program designed to help young people  get quick access to funds and receive case management geared towards helping them find innovative and unique solutions to housing.

All four communities have improved their data collection and reached quality, real-time data for youth and young adults experiencing homelessness, and all have Youth Advisory Boards informing service providers and other professionals.

Through the CDF, 161 youth and young adult households across the four Anchor Communities have been diverted away from the homelessness system since it was launched in September 2020. 

In early 2021, we launched the Student Stability Innovation Grants program to address student homelessness and communities are already using it to serve this population.

There’s more to come over the next two years as our original four communities near their goal, and as we begin the process of expanding to a new set of communities across the state. Thank you for being a part of this journey!



Julie Patiño,

Executive Director of A Way Home Washington

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. 



Julie Patiño,

Executive Director of A Way Home Washington