Last week, in the earliest hours of Friday morning, I was one among thousands of volunteers who fanned out in communities across the nation to participate in the Point-In-Time Count of people who are homeless. This is always a sobering experience for me. This year, I tried to imagine the story behind a woman that I passed sitting in a downtown Seattle bus shelter. She wept silently as she clutched an oversized and overstuffed handbag. I might have questioned whether or not she was homeless had I not known that the next bus wouldn’t arrive at this stop for another three hours. Was she escaping an abusive partner? Suffering from major depression? Several hours later, I was back in the comfort and warmth of my own home. As I tried to drift off to sleep with the experiences of the night replaying in my head, I wondered if that weeping woman was still sitting and waiting for the morning bus, uncertain of the next stop in the journey through her own life.
At the Gates Foundation, we’re now entering the 14th year of our work in Washington State to reduce family homelessness. That may sound like a long time, but when dealing with a problem as complex and seemingly intractable as family homelessness, time is required to find and implement changes with the potential to have real impact. 2012 was a landmark year for the Puget Sound area in this work, as our partner, Building Changes and leaders in three target communities of King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties, made significant progress in this collective work. Accomplishments included:
- Implementing coordinated entry systems that have reduced the number of phone calls required to make contact with helping professionals from an average of more than 40 to only one or two.
- Exploring new models for rapidly re-housing families in permanent housing, a new innovation that gets families out of shelters and into homes more quickly and efficiently than we’ve been able to do in the past.
- Developing innovative “housing first” responses to domestic violence which allow survivors and their children to stay in their own homes or return to alternative permanent housing environments, rather than face extended stays in the shelter system.
Our work in 2013 will continue in all these areas, in addition to expanding our growing partnerships with the mainstream systems that all directly touch the lives of families that are homeless. These include child welfare, workforce training and employment, education, and entitlements such as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) . By aligning funding streams and efforts across systems, we believe that we can get more quickly and effectively to positive outcomes for families that make the best possible use of resources that are already in play.
We’re also working with partners to better define the goals and outcomes of our work that will inform us, over time, if all the systems change work we’re supporting is having a real impact on the number of families that become homeless and the quality of the assistance they receive. Over the long term, our goal is to reduce family homelessness and improve the systems that respond to families experiencing housing crises in King, Snohomish and Pierce Counties. By 2020, we will work with our partners to reduce by half:
- The number of families that experience an episode of homelessness
- The length of time families remain homeless
- The number of families returning to homelessness
In addition to these very specific measures, we are also working to improve the experience of families that become homeless and are tracking a range of indicators of family and child well-being.
These are very ambitious goals. But in the months ahead, every time I wonder if the time, energy and resources being poured into this work by so many different people, organizations and systems are worth it, I’ll remember the silent tears of a woman sitting in a cold and damp bus shelter, waiting in the dark for a ride still so many hours away.