A strategy that helps families who already are homeless find solutions within their own resources is proving successful and less costly than other programs.
What if a strategy existed that could successfully house about one in five families experiencing homelessness, and at a substantially lower cost than other interventions? Wouldn’t you want your county to sign up?
In fact, that strategy already exists. Known as diversion, it is being carried out effectively in Pierce County. The time has come for policymakers and providers throughout King County to invest in this approach with the same boldness and zeal as our neighbors to the south.
At a time when resources for addressing homelessness are inadequate, our region’s decision-makers must make the most of the resources they have. Fully implementing diversion would help King County do exactly that.
Diversion is a common-sense and cost-effective strategy that helps families identify immediate options for housing without relying on housing provided by or subsidized through the homeless system. Instead, staff trained in diversion engage with families to help them find prospects for housing within their own universe of resources. The housing may materialize through something as simple as getting back in the good graces of a previous landlord or negotiating with a relative who can offer a place to stay.
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To support their transition out of homelessness, some families may receive one-time financial assistance, such as to help them cover initial rent or a security deposit.
The organization I lead, Building Changes, has years of experience testing the effectiveness of diversion for families. We supported two diversion pilots from 2014 to 2016 — one in Pierce County and one in King County. Results from those pilots — and the positive outcomes Pierce County has experienced since then — inform my belief that diversion should be a central strategy for every homeless system, used as a first response for resolving a family’s homelessness.
As with other strategies to address homelessness, diversion works for some families, but not all. Since 2016, slightly less than half of the families entering the homeless system in Pierce County tried diversion as a potential route for becoming housed. Among those who did, about half obtained housing. Overall, the approach results in success for about one in five families entering the system.
Similarly, in our Pierce and King pilots, about half of the families that used diversion successfully obtained housing — doing so within a median of only 37 days and at an average cost per family of about $1,250 in Pierce and $2,180 in King. By comparison, the median annual cost in 2016 to successfully house a King County family using emergency shelter, transitional housing or rapid rehousing ranged from $10,600 to $15,000, according to the state Department of Commerce.
Another compelling outcome from our pilots is that among the families successfully housed, 82.6 percent did not return to the county’s homeless system in search of services within a year from their diversion experience. The success from diversion appears to last.
Inspired by the results of our pilot there, Pierce County decision-makers invested fully in diversion, spreading the strategy across the county’s entire homeless system. As a result, every person experiencing homelessness in Pierce County — individual or family — now has an opportunity to use diversion as an approach to becoming housed quickly.
Conversely, implementation of diversion in King County since the end of its pilot in 2016 has been inconsistent, subject to program and provider.
Last month, Building Changes committed $400,000 in grant dollars to help jump-start diversion in King County — on top of the investment we previously made in the 2014-16 pilot there. Funding will go toward training front-line staff in the techniques of diversion and providing flexible dollars to help families transition out of homelessness.
Our latest round of support is intended as a stimulus for policymakers and providers in King County to take diversion to scale and integrate it as a core component of the homeless system. Our hope is that they will embrace diversion with the same enthusiasm as their peers in Pierce County.