A Washington state organization is using data and analytics to help solve a crisis that is both unconscionable and has seemed intractable: the challenge of kids and young adults experiencing homelessness.
The nonprofit A Way Home Washington recently announced dramatic reductions in the number of young people who are homeless in the Eastern Washington city of Spokane and it’s hoping to essentially eliminate youth homelessness by the end of the year in Walla Walla. If they reach that goal, it will be a first in the U.S. for this demographic.
While the initiative is currently being deployed in a limited number of communities, its tech-driven approach could be applied and yield success statewide, said Julie Patiño, executive director of A Way Home Washington.
“We really are hoping … that we’re going to reach a tipping point in the state of Washington and truly functionally end homelessness for young people,” she said. “And I know tons of people say that, but we really have some very compelling proof points that are of national significance.”
In Walla Walla, the number of homeless youth was 81 in April 2021 when the town was able to begin reliably tracking its stats. A year later, that declined 60% to 32 people. The most recently available information is from May when it ticked up to 39 youth and young adults experiencing homelessness.
The group is working with young people age 12-24. Their focus is on youth of color and LGBTQ young people because they experience homelessness at higher rates than white, straight, cisgender youth, Patiño said.
An estimated 13,000 to 15,000 young people are homeless in Washington. This number includes youth on their own, and not those living with their families.
The organization is taking a multi-pronged approach to tackling the challenge. The strategy includes:
- Designating “anchor communities” and creating coalitions of organizations that interact with homeless youth and young people, and ensuring the groups talk to each other.
- Establishing a fund to provide small amounts of money to address hurdles to youth securing housing.
- Adding new data points on race and LGBTQ status for organizations to collect when working with clients.
- Coaching local groups without technical expertise in how to use software tools and dashboards that A Way Home Washington developed to extract and analyze data.
- Using data in real time to better manage services for individuals and to understand which initiatives are and aren’t working.
The approach is modeled on the Built for Zero method developed by Community Solutions, a nationwide organization using data to measurably address homelessness.
“I’m so impressed by the way A Way Home Washington has created access to person-level data that has helped local leaders drive system-level reductions in homelessness in Spokane and Walla Walla,” said Rian Watt, strategy lead at Community Solutions, by email.
“They’ve really pushed the boundaries of what it means to use data to help end youth and young adult homelessness,” he added.
The goal is to reach “functional zero” where homelessness in a community remains rare and people who are homeless are unsheltered for only a brief period. Using this approach, 14 U.S. communities have reached functional zero for veterans experiencing homelessness, chronically homeless people, or both.
The effort targeting Washington’s homeless young people got its start nearly a decade ago thanks to interest from local philanthropists Tricia Raikes, an early Microsoft employee, and Sonya Campion. The two approached Gov. Jay Inslee and First Lady Trudi Inslee and their conversations led to the formation of the nonprofit A Way Home Washington and the state Office of Homeless Youth. The two organizations continue to work together in a public-private partnership.
In 2018, the group launched its current approach, enrolling four anchor communities: Spokane, Walla Walla, and Pierce and Yakima counties. The two counties are still developing their data infrastructure and capacity and do not yet have homelessness trend information.
At the start of 2022, the organization added six more communities. It has also tripled its employee numbers over the past year to 30 people.
Groups that work with people experiencing homelessness were already collecting Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) data that goes into a federal database and is used to allocate government funding. But the system wasn’t set up to help the organizations make use of the information, experts said.
“How can you possibly solve something you don’t understand? You don’t know where it is. You don’t know who the human is behind it,” Patiño said. “You just can’t.”
A Way Home Washington wanted to change that and teamed up with Tableau Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Tableau software company. The foundation has provided the effort with free licenses to Tableau software and data management.
Prior to becoming an anchor community, a town like Walla Walla, for example, had minimal tech expertise in this space and lacked the tools and capacity to do meaningful analysis to guide its homelessness efforts, said Vishesh Jain, data science manager for A Way Home Washington. That has changed.
“I feel so great [knowing] that this knowledge now resides in the communities,” Jain said.
A Way Home Washington receives ongoing support from the Raikes, Campion and Satterberg foundations. The Ballmer Group and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation — philanthropies created in part by former Microsoft CEOs — and the Schultz Family Foundation have also supported the effort.
Looking ahead, the effort is going to share its data competency training with interested organizations beyond the limited number of anchor communities, said Liz Harding Chao, data and evaluation director at A Way Home Washington.
“We want any community in Washington to be able to get these numbers,” she said.