Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

An Ambitious Plan to End Homelessness in Washington State

January 26, 2012

Every year on a cold, January night, volunteers in Washington State partake in a sobering exercise to count the homeless people they see sleeping outside without proper housing. In Pierce County, that number will hopefully be lower, thanks to the effort of county and nonprofit leaders who worked tirelessly last year to revamp their community’s response to homelessness.

In 2011, amidst continued economic stagnation, Pierce County launched an ambitious plan to serve all populations experiencing homelessness: families, individuals, those who’d fallen on hard times and faced housing loss for the first time, and those for whom homelessness was an all-too-frequent reality.   

The plan included building a “centralized intake” system to receive calls from residents who need housing—the first time that Pierce County offered a one-stop number for assistance. Previously, it was up to individuals with a housing crisis to call shelter after shelter until they found an open bed.

The moment this system went live, it revealed just how deep the need was: In eight months, 12,000 separate households called. Now that winter is here, county staff and volunteers expect an average of 2,000 calls a month. The majority are single mothers contacting the system for the first time after their public benefits have run out. The most recent point-in-time count reveals that there are approximately 5,000 children under the age of 18 experiencing homelessness in our state.

In the face of such overwhelming numbers, Pierce County did not scale back its efforts. Instead, after working through the initial backlog of calls, they found shelter for so many households that the vacancy rate for below-market housing is now nearly zero—from a previous 15 percent.

The county should be proud of its new system: Its presence communicates to struggling families and individuals that the county is on their side, committed to recognizing and responding to every call for help. And, homelessness advocates now know the full extent of need in their community.    

But that is not all that Pierce County accomplished last year. County leaders organized a funders’ group to coordinate all available public and private resources, streamline the funding application process, and smooth out regulatory and funding requirement bumps. That way, housing and services providers can devote more time to serving their clients and less time on paperwork.

The county also brought new and unexpected community partners to the table. The Tacoma Housing Authority is partnering with McCarver Elementary School, which has the county’s highest rate of student homelessness, to provide rental assistance and services to their families. This way, children remain in their homes and school, and can focus on their education.

To learn more about Pierce County’s homelessness plan, please read Alice Shobe’s November 2011 keynote speech at the county’s annual homelessness luncheon.

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