Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

How do we make homelessness a one-time occurrence?

July 14, 2014

We believe that every child in Washington State should have access to a safe place to call home. We know that stable housing is essential for parents to get on track to a living wage job and young people on a path to success in school. And because this problem is bigger than anyone of us, including the Gates Foundation, we work with a range of partners on solutions.

One of our partners in this effort, the King County Committee to End Homelessness (CEH), recently hosted their first annual conference. The day focused on how we can work together to make homelessness rare, brief, and one-time.

I left energized by the conversations and wanted to share 3 reasons why I’m optimistic about the work many partners are leading to tackle homelessness in this region.

1. Making homelessness a one-time occurrence

Families and individuals can become homeless for many different reasons and, as we have learned from experience, one-size-fits-all solutions rarely succeed. But, frequently, both public and nonprofit systems feel stuck in the old ways of doing business—even if homeless people and the data tell us we need to improve and change.

Today, leaders in King County are committed to put an end to this cycle. All efforts—and many of the conversations at this conference—focus on how we can make homelessness a one-time occurrence. Shelter, in and of itself, only manages homelessness. It does not end it. CEH pushes all of us to understand and act on what we can do better, beyond shelter alone.

Every person and every family brings a unique story and set of needs when they fall into crisis. They need our support, but in ways that are tailored to their reality so that systems, policies, and practices ensure their crisis is both brief and one time. That has not been the experience for too many homeless people, and that is why the transformation of these systems in King County is so fundamentally important—despite how hard and confusing it may seem for many of us. It is why openness to innovation and improvement is fundamentally important for families and individuals coping with crisis.

2. King County is willing to innovate and take risks

Changing the way large systems work together is not an easy task. What’s more, when many people think of the role government programs play in this change, words like “innovative” and “risk-taking” don’t often come to mind. Yet, that’s exactly what King County and local cities are doing.

The county is implementing a new model known as rapid re-housing. Rapid re-housing helps put families immediately into permanent housing. Families also receive important employment assistance, case management support, and additional housing services as needed.

Compare this to the previous status quo: families could spend months in a shelter, or perhaps two years in transitional housing, often without strong links to social services and job training. Through important systems-level changes like diversion and prevention, coordinated entry, and rapid re-housing, King County is helping lead the way to ensure families never return to homelessness.

There are also equally promising innovations emerging around education for homeless children (take a look, for example, at the exciting transformation of First Place School), workforce training for parents and young adults, and better approaches for families suffering through the trauma of experiences like domestic violence and LGBTQ bias. While we have an obligation to help people survive today, we have an equal obligation to present opportunities that assure their crisis is brief and one-time, and to help ensure they can thrive tomorrow.

3. We all must keep working toward the same goal

A lot of people care deeply about—and are working toward—ending homelessness. Some are focused on affordable housing, others on families or youth who are homeless, and others on chronically homeless adults. For too long, our programs, funding, and advocacy efforts have felt as if they are in competition with one another, especially during down economic times and deep budget deficits. We might be working on different paths, but all paths lead to the same goal: to help end homelessness for all residents in this state.

At the CEH conference, many came together and declared that we need to stop defining ourselves and our work based only on the sub-population we choose to help. All are critically important. The risk that homeless unaccompanied youth will become young homeless families is real. The risk that those both homeless youth and families may end up as homeless single adults is an equally important challenge. Although the specific responses for each population will vary, we are increasingly aware that we need a single, integrated conversation if we are truly going to end homelessness.

 All paths lead to the same goal: end homelessness for all residents in this state.

In fact, hard work and research can only draw us toward elements that must be present in these systems for any target population. Everyone needs stable housing, and that should be a unifying factor. Coordinated entry—giving people one clear place to access help when in crisis—means everyone will get more effective support and will be treated more fairly. Timely and accurate data leads to more effective case management, allows us to gain insight into what works and doesn’t, and ensures we share responsibility for results.

What gives me hope and energy is that King County has proven itself to be a different place. CEH and the whole array of government and community partners have driven results. And they have driven results because our local appetite for innovation and change has increased over time. What I personally took away from the CEH conference was that we believe we can do better, and we know that we can get further together rather than alone.

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