Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Our “Aha” Moments in Tracking Washington Families Fund Data

November 14, 2012

If you want to grab people’s attention, “data” probably isn’t the word that will draw a crowd. But it was the reason that more than 200 gathered at a Washington Families Fund Systems Initiative data convening at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle recently—to review new, baseline information on our efforts to tackle family homelessness in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. Since the Washington Families Fund was established in 2004 to better link services with housing for families experiencing homelessness, data has yielded the big “aha” moments, generating innovation in this work and transitioning it through several key phases.

While many of the convening participants were the usual suspects—federal, state, and local government officials, public housing authorities, and nonprofit providers—about one-third were fresh faces: new partners from the faith and business communities and Rotary clubs. Together, we analyzed the evaluation data that research organization Westat compiled with support from the Gates Foundation, and examined how our work is playing out on the ground.

Let’s look back on where we’ve been and how the data has brought us along, then share the next steps for the Washington Families Fund Systems Initiative evaluation.

Homelessness Doesn’t Mean One Thing

With the legislature and 25 private funders supporting Washington Families Fund providers across the state in 2005, we began to realize from existing and emerging data that homelessness didn’t just mean one thing. While extreme poverty was the common thread among the families, by 2007, we could tell that they in fact had a vastly diverse range of need.

About 75 to 80 percent of families were considered to have “moderate” needs. For this group, we offered funding for employment training and education services in transitional housing, where most stayed for about a year before moving into their own housing. The other 20 to 25 percent had experienced multiple episodes of homelessness, so we provided services within permanent supportive housing, which had no time limits on how long families could stay.   

Fueling all this work was the Washington Families Fund’s flexible funding commitment of five to10 years—an innovation over the usual short-term funding that providers receive. We also innovated in other ways: We created a screening tool to distinguish “high-” from “moderate-needs” families to match them with the right combination of housing and services. We began tracking children’s school attendance and parents’ employment and income to evaluate families’ stabilization and progress.

Our People Are Your People

By 2008, the data began painting a more detailed picture of the “high-needs” families. More than 90 percent had experienced physical or sexual violence, including domestic violence. A majority—65 percent—had a mental health indicators, and 60 percent had received substance abuse treatment. 15 percent of families had an open Child Protective Service (CPS) case.

This information resulted in two things: First, we targeted our services funding to ensure a comprehensive range of treatments to stabilize these families. Second, we could approach the child welfare, domestic violence, and healthcare systems with evidence on the need for collaboration.

It’s one thing to approach providers in these systems—already overwhelmed with their own workload—and ask: “Can you also think about homelessness?” But it’s quite another to point out: “Our people are your people. How can we change the way our systems work to better serve these families?”

Data allowed for this major innovation. We could now bring other systems—and their accompanying resources and data—into a broad partnership to serve families holistically.

End, Instead of Address

In 2009, the Washington Families Fund took another important step when the Governor, the executives of King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, government officials, private funders, and public housing authorities signed a Memorandum of Understanding declaring their commitment to reduce family homelessness by 50 percent by 2020 in our state. We shifted our frame from “addressing” to “ending” family homelessness.

We remain in this phase right now, identifying new partners in public schools, community colleges, and legal services. We also know more about these families than ever before--we’re learning about them as soon as they contact us for help. King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties have all implemented a coordinated entry system, which allows families to call one number, provide their information, and be connected to a housing provider with the most compatible services. This is a huge change from the “status quo ante,” when families had to call an average of 45 to 50 programs to find housing or shelter.

People heard from those implementing this work and have since offered their insights. In "Taking Risks and Learning from Systems Change Work," U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness Deputy Director Jennifer Ho reflects on the data and its implications for the national effort to end homelessness. And David Wertheimer, Deputy Director at the Gates Foundation offered his thoughts in a blog as well.

More Data on the Horizon

The next year will yield more meaty Systems Initiative data. We’ll report on approximately 150 “high-needs” families and how they compare with other families receiving services through the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). We’ll also share the experiences of a cohort of families at four, 12, and 18 months after entering shelter to see on how they are responding to the new systems change effort. And, a few years from now, we’ll know about the cost impacts of all this work.

Data helps us see what we’re doing right and what needs improving. There will undoubtedly be many more “aha” moments ahead. I’m looking forward to the innovations—from partners old and new—that these moments will spur.

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