The Legislature missed an opportunity to invest in family homelessness, especially when we have so much information about strategies that we know are successful.
FAMILIES are the hidden segment of our state’s homeless population and must not be forgotten.
In a single year, nearly 16,000 families with children seek some level of homeless services, according to recent statewide data. The true scope of family homelessness is hard to project, however. Families often are not reflected in “one night counts” of homeless people because they tend to find alternatives to spending the night on the streets where they would be most visible — and most vulnerable.
Over the past several years, philanthropy, government and nonprofits in our state have pooled their resources to test a series of innovative strategies designed to move families out of homelessness and into stable housing. Some, like rapid rehousing and supportive housing, have risen to become familiar approaches for addressing homelessness. A newer strategy, diversion, may be lesser known but shows great promise.
Results from these pilots are very encouraging. Data reveal these strategies are successful at giving more parents the comfort of providing stable housing for their children and, by extension, helping more of our neighbors avoid the misery and trauma of being homeless.
The data also render a helpful guide for future state investment. Simply put, we have entered a breakthrough stage in Washington where we can point to specific, cost-effective strategies with proven results at impacting family homelessness:
• Rapid rehousing, an established practice used successfully throughout the country, aligns homeless families with long-term housing through short-term subsidies and support. The model we favor at Building Changes integrates employment assistance so parents can earn the income they need to keep their family housed. Results from a pilot in King County show that 65 percent of families enrolled in the program found stable housing in an average of three months.
• Supportive housing offers opportunities for families with a history of homelessness to receive long-term services within the setting of a stable home. It has proved successful at helping those confronted with a multitude of barriers, such as mental health, physical health or substance-abuse problems. A study of programs in counties across the state reveals that families who stayed in supportive housing for at least 12 months experienced gains in employment and income, as well as decreased drug and alcohol use.
• Diversion, an emerging practice, assists families with urgent housing crises that can be addressed definitively, preventing them from having to enter emergency shelters and freeing up that critical resource for others in need. A diversion pilot in King County served 450 families within a median time frame of 40 days. Among the families that exited the program, 62 percent were stably housed. Families that obtained financial assistance as part of diversion received an average of $1,259 — a small price to pay to keep another Washington family housed.
This past session, the state Legislature paid welcome attention to youth homelessness. Lawmakers passed the Homeless Student Stability and Opportunity Gap Act that helps school districts identify and support the 35,500 homeless students across our state, in addition to investing $2 million to link homeless students to stable housing within their existing districts.
Still, I can’t help but be disappointed by the missed opportunity to invest similarly in family homelessness, especially when we have so much information about strategies that we know are successful.
Let’s hope that lawmakers will direct their staffs before next session to learn about families struggling with homelessness in their own districts and return to Olympia in 2017 with data in their hands and determination in their hearts.