The following blog post originally appeared on the "Impatient Optimists" blog of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Those of us who have been engaged in efforts to end family homelessness over the past decade need to acknowledge one of two things: Either the work is extremely complex and difficult, or we’re not very good at our jobs. While both of these statements could be true, given the time, talent, and passion that so many have been focusing on this issue for so long, we conclude (and hope) that the first statement is more accurate.
There are many different crises that can catapult a family into homelessness: Loss of a job, domestic violence, accidents or serious illness, and inter-generational poverty – to name just a few. In addition, despite efforts to coordinate, past experiences in responding to homelessness have shown us that, although admirable, fragmented, non-integrated efforts to solve this problem by organizations and systems working independently and on their own have not stemmed the tide of this crisis.
The good news is that we now know what works: Coordinated Entry is an emerging practice that, when it is working effectively, helps to target equitably the right type and intensity of intervention to each family. Decades of practice (and tradition) have resulted in high levels of fragmentation across the many service systems families may touch in their efforts to seek stability. Coordinated entry offers a systemic intervention predicated on a very simple belief: Families in crisis should not have to “work the system” to find the supports that they need. Rather, the system should work for them.
In addition, rapidly returning families to permanent housing and connecting them to the specific supports and services they need to promote stability are proving in communities across the nation to be among the most efficient and effective ways to end family homelessness. Simply stated; families experiencing homelessness need housing first. This can be an uphill climb; in the current environment in the Puget Sound region affordable housing is a precious and scarce commodity. Providers working to quickly identify permanent housing for homeless families face daily challenges with rents increasing at record rates, inequities in access to housing, and extremely high competition for existing housing units.
Coordinated entry and promoting access to permanent housing and the right mix of services tailored to each family’s needs are critical first steps in moving toward solutions to family homelessness. Creating a systemic response that effectively responds to the complex, individual needs of each homeless family requires levels of collaboration and integration that have, historically, been unfamiliar and sometimes considered suspect by even the most dedicated system leaders and providers of care.
In this challenging context, new, collaborative responses have proven difficult to organize and even harder to implement. Nevertheless, data from communities across the nation tells us we can be highly successful when our efforts are focused first and foremost on rapidly returning families to housing.
We haven’t always gotten these collective solutions right the first time around, despite the very best of intentions. Here in King County, for example, the first version of a coordinated entry system for homeless families – called Family Housing Connections – proved to be cumbersome and complex, and resulted in long waits for help that appeared on the surface to be worse than the chaotic absence of a collective response that had existed previously.
It’s a tribute to organizational leadership and line staff providers that we all didn’t throw up our hands in frustration and decide simply to return to the absence of a system we had before we started. Instead, leaders and providers worked together to carefully examine what was going wrong with the efforts – why families were waiting too long for assistance and housing – and revised the approach to address the specific problems that had been identified.
As a result, an overhaul of the King County family homelessness coordinated entry system is now underway, and as both NPR and the homeless newspaper Real Change have noted, we’re beginning to see improvements in both the length of time families wait for help and the speed with which they are being re-housed. With continued collaboration to implement more significant changes, even more dramatic improvements are imminent.
Mark Twain said that “Nobody likes change except a wet baby.” There’s a real truth there. Change is hard, especially when the changes being made are attempting to undo a crisis like family homelessness that has been decades in the making and is rooted in a constellation of economic, political, and social issues.
Looking at a problem from a systems perspective and making changes that promote collaborative solutions that were not in place before, can provide clear pathways to improved responses to the needs of those families experiencing the most extreme crises. It’s not easy. It’s not simple. It requires patience, and the willingness to look at what’s going badly in order to determine what needs to be done to do better.
That’s exactly what is happening right now in King County and in communities across the nation. All of us learn the hard way on a daily basis that new responses to extreme challenges like homelessness rarely get the solution right the first time around. Rather than abandoning all hope and returning to even more dysfunction, coming up with Version 2.0 of a solution can offer the promise of moving in the direction where we’re finally getting it right.