Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Lessons on Ending Homelessness From 200 Smart Thinkers

November 06, 2012

It isn’t every day that the work I do here at the Gates Foundation is called audacious, but when one of our partners described our collective efforts to end family homelessness in Washington State with precisely this word, I took it as a compliment.  And I actually think she meant it that way.

This month, we joined forces with with Building Changes, one of the anchor grantees in our homelessness work, and invited more than 200 of our partners to join a conversation about the past three years of our work together.  Representatives from government, philanthropy, non-profit providers, Public Housing Authorities, advocacy organizations, the faith community, evaluators and others reviewed data that has been collected in our Washington State demonstration communities that provide keys to understanding a complex problem with equally complex solutions.

If ending family homelessness were easy, that goal would have been accomplished a long time ago.  Families go into crisis for many different reasons, and can lose their housing after losing a job, experiencing a health crisis, fleeing domestic violence, struggling with a mental illness or substance abuse problem – each family’s story and situation is unique.

We’ve been working at this with our partners locally for more than a decade, and we still don’t have all the solutions.  But those of us who gathered together last week were able to agree on three key points:

  • We are making great progress in working together at a systems level to create smarter, better, responses to family homelessness.  New Coordinated Entry efforts provide evidence that we can do a better job of identifying and responding to family needs early on in each family’s crisis.
  • We have better and better data available to help us understand the complexities of family homelessness, and design the best possible responses that can help us prevent or rapidly respond to families at risk of, or experience homelessness. 
  • In the current economic climate of scarce resources, we must create the most efficient and effective responses possible.  This means being bold in our exploration of new innovations with the potential to stretch our housing and service dollars further in the service of larger numbers of families in crisis.  Rapid re-housing, a promising practice being tested in communities across the nation, is worthy of careful consideration as a potential alternative to more expensive responses that may work just as well to stabilize a family’s housing crisis.

Creating the right combination of housing and services for each family – just as a business would seek to match each customer to products best suited to their needs – must be our goal.  That is really hard, difficult work, but the level of commitment I experienced last week among so many different partners made it clear to me that we can – and will – end family homelessness.  If you need encouragement that this result is possible – and critically important to the future of the most vulnerable in our communities – take a look at the faces in this short video, and listen to the words of their stories, and you will see quickly why this work is so very important to us all.

At the end of our meeting, another partner approached me and said, “That was fascinating.  I was actually watching systems change unfolding in real time.”  I think that’s precisely the way audacious goals become real results.

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