This story is part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems. It was originally published by The Seattle Times.
Walla Walla is making a push to become the first community in the nation to end youth and young adult homelessness.
Between 2021 and 2022, Walla Walla cut its count of homeless young people in half, from 81 to 39.
The rural county in Southeast Washington surrounded by golden wheat fields and rolling hills is perhaps best known for its wine industry.
It is now also the poster child of the statewide Anchor Community Initiative, a project started in 2018 by A Way Home Washington, a nonprofit co-chaired by Trudi Inslee, the first lady of Washington.
At inception, officials announced the initiative would end homelessness for anyone aged 12 to 24 in four Washington counties by the end of this year.
Leaders of the effort say better coordination, clearer data, and involvement from the people they are serving have helped Walla Walla’s success.
Now, the initiative is expanding to six other counties, bringing the state’s investment in the project to at least $12.5 million.
That’s despite the initiative failing to bring down youth homelessness in three other counties.
Before Walla Walla, the initiative touted Spokane as the first county in Washington to considerably reduce youth homelessness. But it didn’t last.
In the last year, Spokane’s numbers have risen 50%, suggesting that reductions are more difficult to sustain than to initially achieve.
And there are factors that initiative staff say made success easier in Walla Walla than in the other three counties.
Still, as numbers move up in some places and down in others, the initiative is helping to bring in more funding to communities that previously spent a fraction of what they do now on youth homelessness response, and young people say that is doing a better job serving them.
How it’s working
In Spokane, Finn Rankin, 21, has housing they feel good about for the first time. Their one-bedroom apartment pops with color, from the pink couch and orange dresser to the dozens of art pieces that decorate the walls, much of it created by Rankin.
It’s partly to make up for lost time, they say, for all the years they had no control over the spaces they lived in.
Homelessness often begins before adulthood. In King County, nearly half of all homeless people first experienced homelessness by the time they were 24. The Anchor Community Initiative strives to intervene early, said Inslee, a champion of the initiative.
Rankin and 40% of homeless youth in the country identify as LGBTQ, according to the Raikes Foundation.
Youth who are people of color are 83% more likely than their counterparts to become homeless, according to the National Network for Youth.
The Anchor Community Initiative works to address those disproportionalities, tracking homeless young people in those demographics.
Rankin’s family was always poor, they said. At 13, their family started living with friends and relatives. Two years later, Rankin was asked to move out because there wasn’t enough room.
In 2021, after six years of couch surfing, Rankin applied for and received a housing voucher, a coupon from the federal government that can be used to pay rent.
However, Rankin, who has an executive functioning disorder that makes focusing and organizing tasks difficult, was struggling to find an apartment that would take it in Spokane’s tight housing market.
That’s where the Anchor Community Initiative came in. The initiative works by revamping communities’ youth and young adult homelessness response system with a few key ingredients.
The first is better data. Initiative staff compile a “by-name list,” which includes the name of every homeless young person in the county, where they are, and details about what each person’s barriers to housing are.
Names appear on the list when young people check into shelters or seek homeless services.
When Rankin applied for the voucher, they likely showed up on that list.
The data shows how many young people are homeless, how many are unsheltered, and how many are being placed into housing, broken down by month. Initiative staff can use it to get near-immediate feedback on whether their efforts are working.
But data doesn’t get people housed. Usually, that takes money. And the initiative introduces a new pot of money that staff say is unique.
Money and lived experience
The Homelessness Prevention and Diversion Fund, public funds supplemented by private donations from foundations like Raikes, Campion and the Ballmer Group, has helped at least 724 youth and young adults across the four original Anchor Communities — Walla Walla, Spokane, Yakima and Pierce counties — find or maintain housing since 2020.
Walla Walla has served at least 139 young people this way. Raikes and Campion are financial contributors to The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless, while Ballmer supports the news organization’s Mental Health Project.
The diversion fund is uniquely flexible in what it can pay for and who can access it. A number of different community members and organizations can pull money out of it — not only youth homeless service providers but schools, tenant advocates, youth advisory board members and tribal centers.
The idea is that young people can approach whoever they are comfortable with or already have a relationship with for help.
Mike Woolson, a service navigator for the initiative in Walla Walla, says that much of the time, the fund provides direct rental assistance or housing deposits.
But he has also used it to pay for dorm rooms, beds and mattresses for young people to stay with friends, or transportation for youth who can’t sign their own lease to go stay with family in other parts of the country.
Although much of the funding goes toward short-term relief, Woolson and other initiative staff say, sometimes, that’s all a young person needs to avoid being on the street.
According to the initiative, 93% of young people who access the fund remain housed 12 months later.
Staff say that success is because they let young people choose their housing solution.
“They know what they need,” said Ashley Barnes-Cocke, Anchor Community Initiative project director. “The path to get to that doesn’t necessarily fit into the boxes that sometimes, as adults, that we create.”
After hearing stories like Rankin’s, initiative staff brought together case managers, housing specialists and landlord liaisons to create a weekly workshop to help young adults navigate the rental application process.
They helped Rankin keep track of all their applications and provided scripts to explain to landlords why they don’t have credit. They called it “House Busters.”
That culture of bringing together different groups to help young people is what many working with the initiative say is its most radical and effective ingredient, helping communities squeeze extra gains from existing resources.
Initiative staff lead regular meetings with service providers, outreach workers, representatives from schools, the juvenile detention facility and other organizations to come up with new approaches like House Busters.
After a few months of attending the workshop and submitting applications, Rankin found an apartment. But there were still moving costs, and first and last month’s rent.
The initiative paid for all of that on top of Rankin’s application fees through its Homelessness Prevention and Diversion Fund.
A few days before Christmas 2021, Rankin was handed the keys to their own apartment.
Rankin now sits on Spokane’s Youth Action Board, a group of formerly homeless youth and young adults who help steer the initiative’s efforts.
They say it feels good to share their experiences and traumas “and feel safe and also respected and heard.”
Why are Spokane’s numbers going up and Walla Walla’s going down?
Despite Rankin’s story of success, Spokane’s aggregate youth and young adult homelessness numbers have been on a roller coaster ride, trending upward in the last year.
When A Way Home Washington heralded Spokane’s early success, the county’s numbers had dropped from 270 homeless young people in December 2020 to 217 in June 2021, a 20% decrease within six months.
But from there, the count went up to 330 as of July 2022, a 50% increase in a little over a year.
In the other Anchor Communities, Yakima’s count of its homeless youth population has more than doubled — from 90 to 219 in the past three years. Pierce County went from 457 to 865 in the same time.
“I don’t see it as a failure necessarily,” said Julius Henrichsen, Spokane’s Anchor Community Initiative coordinator.
Staff said the increase is a result of better identification. Henrichsen said that paradoxically, Spokane’s numbers could be going up partly because the initiative is doing a good job serving young people.
For example, a number of homeless young adults emerged “out of the woodwork” in 2021, he said, when Spokane opened its first young adult shelter.
Inside the shelter, located across the street from the community college, bags, shoes and skateboards are stored underneath many of the 27 beds.
“They see this as home,” said LaKedia Davis, the shelter’s manager who grew up in Spokane.
Davis said the shelter residents “were just outside, under the bridge, sleeping in cars” before they moved in.
For many of them, coming to the young adult shelter was their first time being counted as homeless.
“The more data we provide to them, they think that the problem is growing or something. No, it’s just being elucidated,” said Julie Patiño, executive director of A Way Home Washington.
But nationally and in Spokane, the problem of homelessness is growing, accelerated by the pandemic, and that could also be extending the initiative’s goal posts.
According to the county’s annual Point-In-Time Count, homelessness in Spokane increased 41% over the past four years, from 1,245 in 2018 to 1,757 in 2022.
In the last year, a homeless encampment called Camp Hope in the city of Spokane swelled to become the largest in the state, with hundreds of people staying there.
Like much of the country, rents in Spokane skyrocketed during the past four years, increasing 42% since the initiative began, according to Apartment List.
Eviction moratoriums that have been expiring since last year have also likely resulted in more people becoming homeless.
On top of that, the pandemic exacerbated staffing shortages and turnover among social service providers that Henrichsen said made forward momentum on new efforts and projects difficult to maintain.
Initiative staff aren’t sure how to account for Walla Walla’s anomalous success during these challenging conditions.
They say the difference could be size. Walla Walla is smaller than the other three counties that have seen growth in their homeless youth and young adult populations.
From the start, staff there had a shorter list of homeless young people to manage.
Plus, it has a small town culture, which initiative staff describe as “the Walla Walla way,” making it easier to rally and coordinate people and organizations around a unified mission.
Walla Walla officials also say they have been lucky to see relatively little turnover among initiative staff and those leading service provider organizations.
Can you miss your target and still be succeeding?
Bringing the count of homeless young people down to zero is still the main goal, initiative staff said, but not the only metric by which they should be evaluated.
For one, Patiño said that having created the data infrastructure to even know that numbers are going up is, in and of itself, an asset.
Another number that’s going up is the number of people housed by the initiative’s flexible Homelessness Prevention and Diversion Fund.
Across all four original Anchor Communities, the fund has helped house or maintain housing for twice as many youth and young adults in the last year compared to the year before — 441 compared to 220, the vast majority of whom are staying housed a year after the intervention.
The initiative’s data also shows 55% of everyone housed through those funds in the last year were people of color, 47% had disabilities, and 25% identified as LGBTQ.
The initiative has also helped raise the overall homelessness funding available in its participating communities.
Spokane alone has received over $5 million in state and federal grants for youth and young adult homelessness in the last few years, funding that was either explicitly earmarked to support the initiative or obtained in grant awards that staff say the initiative played a crucial role in winning.
That’s a substantial amount when Spokane is on track to spend $16 million this year on homelessness as a whole, said Jenn Cerecedes, the city’s director of Community, Housing, and Human Services.
Those funds built Spokane’s first young adult shelter, and a number of new programs like House Busters.
New partners say they are still eager to participate. Thurston, Skagit, Whatcom, Jefferson, Clallam and Clark counties are joining the initiative this year.