Seattle Nonprofit Uses Public-Private Partnerships and ‘Diversion’ Approach to Fight Homelessness
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Commentary

Seattle Nonprofit Uses Public-Private Partnerships and ‘Diversion’ Approach to Fight Homelessness

Permanent housing solutions could be found through public-private partnerships.

Early feedback from two pilot programs in Washington state’s Pierce (Tacoma) and King (Seattle) counties should encourage communities across the country to consider public-private partnerships (PPPs) to help find permanent housing solutions for their homeless populations.

Building Changes is a nonprofit in Seattle that successfully uses an early-engagement method, known as ‘diversion,’ that helps reduce homelessness in the community through the use of public-private partnerships. While diversion has been successfully used to prevent homelessness, Building Changes pools together governmental and nonprofit resources to demonstrate diversion’s effectiveness for families exiting homelessness.

By working closely to identify individually-based solutions to exit homelessness—often with the assistance of other programs to help individuals become more marketable to employers—diversion differs from traditional methods that place homeless families and individuals into shelters without services intended to ensure a quick and permanent departure from homelessness (e.g., job training, language courses or other educational programming).

Rather, diversion is an early engagement approach that identifies attainable housing options based on the homeless individual’s own resources. The diversion process initiates during a person’s first contact with the homeless response system, which occurs either through coordinated entry—an organized, streamlined entry process that quickly identifies, assesses and refers homeless individuals to services based on needs—or at the doors of emergency shelters.

During the first contact stage of diversion, trained specialists initiate an exploratory conversation to identify realistic options for homeless individuals to become immediately housed. The staff informs families on time frames for receiving rapid re-housing, an approach that reduces the time individuals are homeless by removing as many barriers to housing as possible (i.e. lack of/no income, health issues or disabilities, or poor rental histories).

Rapid re-housing speeds up the process for individuals dealing with those particular barriers and houses them quickly, as opposed to homeless individuals who may be able to exit homelessness with little or no assistance, or those who experience chronic homelessness and would require permanent supportive housing, or individuals needing addiction services.

The homeless individuals requiring permanent supportive housing receive services that combine housing assistance with support services, including medical care, substance abuse treatment, and employment placement services to achieve independent living.

Specialists will identify immediate barriers to safe housing and produce creative solutions to move beyond those barriers, which can include disputes with landlords or friends or family who possess safe housing, or an inability to cover upfront moving costs.

A diversion specialist can offer mediation with landlords, friends and relatives, or offer connections to community resources that offer credit repair and legal counsel. They can also provide one-time financial assistance for housing and assist with transportation. These funds for one-time assistance are flex funds—funds with broader discretionary use—set aside for staff to use at their own discretion.

The pilot programs in the two Seattle-area counties served a total of 1,898 households with children. The results show about half (49 percent) of the families secured immediate housing while avoiding pricier alternatives.  Among the families housed only 17.4 percent returned to homelessness within a year. A strong majority (76 percent) secured their own rental units without a housing subsidy. Building Changes’ goal is to have people housed within 30 days. The average median time for finding a participant new housing in the two pilot programs was 37 days.

Although financial assistance may be available, an evaluation demonstrated that one-third of families housed through diversion in Pierce County were able to without any financial assistance. Other figures show the annual cost per successfully housed family using diversion was $1,668 ($1,031 in flex funds and $637 for staff), much lower than emergency sheltering ($2,179), rapid re-housing ($5,290), or transitional housing ($14,800).

Building Changes gets its funding through the Washington Youth & Families Fund (WYFF), which combines government and philanthropy to make targeted investments to end homelessness. WYFF has invested in over 100 organizations in 24 counties, combining $20 million in tax revenue and $53.7 million in private contributions since 2004 to reduce homelessness in the state.

The successful model that Building Changes pursues is a part of a similar effort of another nonprofit — Your Way Home in Montgomery County, PA. They also use PPPs to address homelessness. They both have a common theme of focusing on early intervention, combining resources and streamlining processes, while using PPPs to achieve the collective goal of ending homelessness in their communities.

As Building Changes and other community nonprofits have shown, diversion can be a useful tool that reduces costs for struggling state and local governments looking for other alternatives to reduce their homeless populations.

Nicholas DeSimone is a research analyst at Reason Foundation.