A Washington State organization is using data and analytics to help solve a crisis that is both unconscionable and seemingly intractable: the challenge of homeless children and young adults.
The non-profit organization A Way Home Washington recently announced dramatic reductions in youth homelessness in the eastern Washington town of Spokane and hopes to essentially eliminate homelessness among young people by the end of the year in Walla Walla. If they achieve this goal, it will be a first in the United States for this demographic.
Although the initiative is currently being rolled out in a limited number of communities, its technology-driven approach could be applied and achieve success statewide, said Julie Patiño, executive director of A Way Home Washington.
“We really hope … that we’re going to reach a tipping point in Washington state and end youth homelessness in a really functional way,” she said. “And I know tons of people say that, but we really have very compelling evidence that is of national significance.”
In Walla Walla, the number of homeless youth was 81 in April 2021 when the city was able to start reliably tracking its statistics. A year later, that was down 60% to 32 people. The most recent information available is from May, when they checked off up to 39 youth and young adults experiencing homelessness.
The group works with young people aged 12 to 24. They focus on youth of color and LGBTQ youth, as they are more often homeless than white, straight and cisgender youth, Patiño said.
An estimated 13,000 to 15,000 young people are homeless in Washington. This number includes young people who are alone and not those who live with their families.
The organization takes a multi-pronged approach to meeting the challenge. The strategy includes:
- Designate “anchor communities” and create coalitions of organizations that interact with youth and homeless youth, and ensure groups talk to each other.
- Establish a fund to provide small amounts of money to overcome barriers to obtaining housing for young people.
- Added new race and LGBTQ status data points for organizations to collect when working with customers.
- Accompaniment of local groups without technical expertise in the use of software tools and dashboards developed by A Way Home Washington to extract and analyze data.
- Use real-time data to better manage consumer services and understand what initiatives are working and not working.
The approach is modeled on the Built for Zero method developed by Community Solutions, a national organization using data to measurably address homelessness.
“I am so impressed with how A Way Home Washington has created person-level data access that has helped local leaders reduce system-level homelessness in Spokane and Walla Walla,” Rian said. Watt, Chief Strategy Officer at Community Solutions, via email.
“They’ve really pushed the boundaries of what it means to use data to help end homelessness among youth and young adults,” he added.
The goal is to reach “functional zero” where homelessness in a community remains rare and homeless people are not housed for only a short time. Using this approach, 14 US communities have reached functional zero for homeless veterans, chronically homeless, or both.
The effort targeting Washington’s homeless youth began nearly a decade ago with interest from local philanthropists Tricia Raikes, an early Microsoft employee, and Sonya Campion. The two approached Governor 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, recruiting four anchor communities: Spokane, Walla Walla, and Pierce and Yakima counties. Both counties are still developing their data infrastructure and capacity and do not yet have information on roaming trends.
In early 2022, the organization added six more communities. It has also tripled its workforce over the past year to 30 people.
Groups that work with people experiencing homelessness were already collecting data from the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) which feeds into a federal database and is used to allocate public funds. But the system was not set up to help organizations use the information, experts said.
“How can you solve something you don’t understand? You don’t know where it is. You don’t know who the human behind this is,” Patiño said. “You just can’t.”
A Way Home Washington wanted to change that and partnered with Tableau Foundation, the philanthropic arm of software company Tableau. The foundation provided the effort with free licenses for Tableau software and data management.
Prior to becoming an anchor community, a city like Walla Walla, for example, had minimal technological expertise in this space and lacked the tools and capacity to conduct meaningful analysis to guide its homelessness efforts, a said Vishesh Jain, data science lead for A Way Home. Washington. This has changed.
“I feel good [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 set up in part by former Microsoft CEOs — and the Schultz Family Foundation have also backed the effort.
Going forward, the effort will share its data skills training with interested organizations beyond the limited number of anchor communities, said Liz Harding Chao, director of data and evaluation at A Way Home Washington.
“We want any community in Washington to be able to get those numbers,” she said.