These actions are informed by four months of primary and secondary research conducted by our team. Our team analyzed national best practices and global innovations as well as the policies, organizational structures, regulatory authorities, and performance reports of local stakeholder agencies to understand the systems-level structures that drive performance. We consulted with more than 100 local and national public officials, system administrators, and technical experts to understand the challenges and opportunities at hand.
Our ability to develop these actions also required an understanding of the current state of services derived from the experiences of frontline staff and people experiencing homelessness. Our research team leveraged a mix of design workshops, interviews, and site visits across King County. Our lines of inquiry identified the most pressing challenges for accessing and delivering services and the dynamics between service providers, customers, and the system.
Throughout our research, customers1 illustrated the ways that economic instability drives housing instability. They often shared that when they were housed, they needed support to meet their basic financial needs and to gain stable employment. Those supports are essential for homelessness prevention and for eliminating bounceback, which is when individuals return to homelessness after “exiting” the system.
Therefore, the fourth action is to prioritize economic stability to reduce inflow.
This action is strongly aligned with our assessment that, while there are not enough resources in the community to end homelessness, resource deployment is suboptimal. Specifically, the region should shift towards prioritizing funding for services that have a clear pipeline to permanent housing and economic mobility supports. We found that supports that cannot facilitate these connections frustrate people experiencing homelessness and erode public trust by creating the impression that money is being spent on non-effective interventions.
Prioritizing the financial assistance and employment supports that customers have identified would transform the King County regional homelessness system into one that lays the foundation for individuals to exit the system, secure permanent housing, and gain long-term stability and control over their own lives.
Please note that this team refers to “people with lived experience” or “people experiencing homelessness” as “customers” to accurately reflect their status placement within the system. ↩
In our workshops and interviews, customers spoke about wanting control over their own economic stability. They identified a range of basic economic supports that would enable them to achieve and maintain housing stability. In particular, they emphasized flexible financial assistance to cover living and emergency costs and employment pathways in stable, high-growth occupations.
Many customers shared that economic support is often the primary intervention they are seeking, but service providers tend to direct them toward behavioral health and other intensive supports that are more widely available, even when they’re not needed or requested.
They also described the challenges of the “not sweet spot,” where increases in income disqualified them from certain services and supports, even though that income was not sufficient to maintain housing stability. The connection between economic stability and homelessness inextricable. Therefore it is critical that the region explicitly focus on reducing inflow and eliminating bounceback.
To achieve this, the system must prioritize quality and flexible economic supports that directly meet the stated needs of people who are at risk of and experiencing homelessness. There is currently no coordinated effort to draw on performance data to identify what strategies are and aren’t effective and scale resources accordingly. This, in turn, leads to a lack of regional coordination around the quality and long-term effectiveness of supports.1
Based on our work with customers and providers, and through national research, we know that many people experiencing homelessness are employed, though often working in multiple, low-wage jobs that are difficult to maintain without stable housing.2 Customers’ descriptions of living with this instability highlight the detrimental effects of toxic stress3 on their quality of life, health, and abilities to make decisions.
Unaffordable housing, insufficient earned income, and unemployment are among the key causes of family homelessness.4 Families have a high likelihood of exiting homelessness quickly if they receive sufficient supports in these two areas. Increased income is a strong predictor of a person exiting homelessness5 and also improves their access to food, clothing, healthcare, and housing. Increased income is also shown it improve individuals’ wellbeing and supports recovery from serious mental illness and substance use disorders.6
Many people have immediate financial needs that could be the difference between maintaining stable housing and homelessness.7 Customers talked about having medical care, childcare, and transportation costs that made it difficult for them to maintain employment. In these cases, a well-timed housing subsidy or cash transfer to cover those and other basic living costs, would help eliminate inflow into the system. This is especially relevant for black and Native populations who are at high risk for experiencing homelessness. These communities in particular experience a form of community-level poverty called “network impoverishment” that accelerates inflow from historically marginalized communities.8
Therefore, the first set of strategies here are designed to enable people experiencing homelessness or at risk of experiencing homelessness to meet their immediate financial needs.
There is also an overwhelming need to tailor employment supports to customers’ stated needs and integrate those supports into the homeless service system. This should be done by focusing on employment navigation supports and targeting skills training and job placement for occupations with high-growth opportunities. To support this, we have included a set of strategies to prioritize employment supports for people experiencing homelessness.
For customers to benefit from these supports, providers will need to be responsive to their stated needs and adaptable enough to respond as needs change. We detail our recommendations in Action six for how the intake system should be transformed to better assess needs and connect customers to other supports available in the community.
According to the King County May 2018 audit report, and corroborated by our community engagement workshops, City and County funders of the homeless service system have not been sufficiently focused on system performance. ↩
Also called allostatic or cognitive load. ↩
United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, 2015; the United States Conference of Mayors, 2015. ↩
Zlotnick, C., Robertson, M.J., & Lahiff, M. (1999). Getting off the streets: Economic resources and residential exits from homelessness. Journal of Community Psychology, 27(2), 209-224. ↩
Lam, J.A., & Rosenheck, R.A. (2000). Correlates of improvement in quality of life among homeless persons with serious mental illness. Psychiatric Services, 51, 116-118
Schumacher, J.E., Mennemeyer, S.T., Milby, J.B., Wallace, D., & Nolan, K. (2002). Costs and effectiveness of substance abuse treatments for homeless persons. Journal of Mental Health Policy Economics, 5, 33-42. ↩
Cauthen, N., & Lu, H.H. (2003). Employment alone is not enough for America’s low-income children and families. Living at the Edge Research Brief No. 1. National Center for Children in Poverty. ↩
Focus on eliminating inflow and bounceback into the system.
1. Assess the prevalence of people returning to homelessness and implement strategies to measure and address the causes.
We currently do not have complete information on how many people return to the homeless service system. This is due to insufficient data collection and the systems’ limited ability to track customers’ service utilization across the system. The region should conduct an assessment to better understand the scope of returns to homelessness. The process should identify racial disparities and work with the affected populations to identify services and supports that would have bolstered their housing stability, and scale those resources accordingly. This can and should build on the foundation laid by the community engagement that has already taken place.
Meet the immediate financial needs of people experiencing homelessness or at risk of experiencing homelessness.
1. Use local funding to generate more flexible shallow rent subsidies that can be accessed before a person experiences homelessness.
Flexible, shallow rent subsidies should be available to customers to directly cover rental costs for individuals and families at risk of experiencing homelessness. Many people who experience homelessness, both for the first time and after having exited the shelter and service system, do so after experiencing housing foreclosure or leaving a living arrangement with friends, relatives, or acquaintances. Therefore, subsidies should also cover rental costs of hosts of those individuals and families. 1
2. Utilize cash transfers to empower people experiencing homelessness or at risk of experiencing homelessness to meet their immediate financial needs.
A new regional authority should manage a cash transfer application process, drawing on resources from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Emergency Food and Shelter Program (EFSP), Medicaid, and philanthropic partners to enable people to cover basic living and emergency costs that they identify. If people could cover their own basic costs, they could spend less or no time going to different service providers, freeing up time to spend on work, skills training, or other long-term planning.
There is currently a process underway to redesign the workforce system, which will offer several opportunities to strengthen cross-system collaboration. The most immediate opportunity is related to a pilot program, currently under consideration, that would offer a stipend to cover living expenses for low-income individuals engaged in longer-term skills training programs.2 There are similar pilots underway in other cities3 that provide direct cash transfers to low-income families. The Stanford Basic Income Lab recently released a guide4 to support municipal innovations and pilot projects that should be useful in developing this program in King County.
Prioritize robust employment supports for people experiencing homelessness.
1. Co-locate workforce and homeless services supports.
A new regional authority will be well-positioned to establish strong connections between the Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act (WIOA) and Continuum of Care (CoC) systems, particularly in light of the King County workforce redesign process underway. This collaboration should include cross-system representation on key committees,5 aligning system metrics, and cross-training and co-locating staff in integrated workforce and homeless service programs.
Collaboration should build on the groundwork laid by the Connections Project,6 to develop a stronger employment needs triage process at the homeless service system’s Referral Access Points. The region should look to Houston’s Income Now program,7 where coordinated entry intake processes include a short income assessment to determine whether customers should be referred to workforce services or disability benefits supports. That determination is made through an algorithm, but the staff conducting the assessment at provider discusses it with the customer and facilitates a warm hand-off, printing information on where customers should go, and arranging for an employment counselor to greet them.8
These strategies are particularly important to address racial inequity. The redesign of the workforce system is driven by a recognition that the system needs to strengthen services for marginalized communities and develop more targeted supports using a racial equity framework. Frameworks to drive toward equity should be aligned across the two systems to ensure both are deploying quality supports for people of color, particularly black and Native communities.
2. Align WIOA and CoC metrics on connections to employment.
The cross-system collaboration outlined above needs to be supported by alignment in metrics and priorities across systems. For example, WIOA discretionary funds and funding for hard-to-place jobseekers could be prioritized for jobseekers experiencing homelessness. CoC providers should be incentivized to streamline access to employment services.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requires that CoCs collect data on income and employment gains for people in CoC program-funded housing interventions. However, the data is focused on change in income (from employment and non-employment sources) rather than on employment needs or interests. Data collection, however, does not equate to connections to income and employment services.9 It will be important for the new regional authority to add questions to homeless service system intake assessment about interest in employment, based on the Chicago Connections Project10 model. A memorandum of understanding between the WDC, CoC, and the new authority will be key to institutionalize this partnership. Such an agreement should also facilitate data sharing so partners can track customers through both systems and better understand the connection between housing instability and employment.
3. Align funding to invest in skills training and job placement in high-growth occupations and social enterprises.
Regional partners should identify funding streams that can be leveraged to improve employment and skills training programs. Investments should be focused on occupations that customers determine to be meaningful and appropriate, pay a living wage, offer both part-time and full-time options, and have future growth opportunities. This is essential for addressing racial disparities, given the widening wage gap between credentialed, high-skilled workers and low-skilled workers, who are disproportionately non-white and whose earned income has not kept up with the cost of living.11 Those trends drive the need for programs that help low-wage workers gain in-demand skills and advance in their careers,12 rather than just general job or soft skills training. Programs that provide skills training and job placement support coupled with case management and basic financial assistance have shown strong outcomes for low-income individuals.13
Funding should be enhanced to support training programs and employment case management, creating connections between homeless service providers and existing programs. Employment case managers should help customers access resources to meet job placement, training, childcare, transportation, clothing, and equipment needs. Those funding streams include:
- SNAP Employment & Training
- WIOA Individual Training Accounts
- Medicaid Transformation Foundational Community Supports – Supported Employment Services
4. Leverage and integrate Moving to Work employment case management funding.
The Seattle Housing Authority (SHA) and King County Housing Authority (KCHA) should leverage Moving to Work (MTW) funding to develop stronger employment supports for residents in public housing or using vouchers, in alignment with the training and job strategy described above. Increased income should not affect an individual or family’s rental subsidy for at least two years after securing employment.14 This is especially important for ensuring housing access for people being released from prison, many of whom at risk of homelessness and have little immediate access to sufficient income to afford market-rate housing.15
5. Strengthen employment supports for customers accessing Rapid Re-Housing (RRH) and Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) programs.
RRH programs are important paths out of shelters and into permanent housing. However, without immediate and direct employment supports, it is hard for people to increase their earned income and stabilize permanently in housing following the end of their subsidy period (typically six months). The region should build on the employment navigator model16 from the King County Rapid Re-Housing for Families pilot17 and leverage HUD funding and the funding streams referenced above to design and implement programs with longer housing subsidy periods. This will allow for completion of skills training in high-growth occupations.18 Employment navigators in this model are focused on helping customers to identify the most appropriate training and job pathway, assist with connections to financial assistance to cover basic costs, and coordinate with health and housing supports. It is important to track employment stability and earned income as program metrics and tie successful outcomes to funding. For strategies around employment and other supports in PSH programs, see Action 9.
From correspondence with Nancy Yamamoto in the Seattle Office of Economic Development. ↩
Brinklow, Adam. Stockton rolls out universal basic income experiment. Curbed San Francisco. February 1, 2018. ↩
For more detail on governance and funding recommendations, see Heartland Alliance. (March 2018). Systems Work Better Together: Strengthening Public Workforce & Homeless Service Systems Collaboration. ↩
From correspondence with Gary Grier at Houston Income Now. ↩
Heartland Alliance. (March 2018). Systems Work Better Together: Strengthening Public Workforce & Homeless Service Systems Collaboration. ↩
National Poverty Law Center. (April 2013). What We Know About Workforce Development for Low-Income Workers: Evidence, Background and Ideas for the Future.. ↩
Aspen Institute, Workforce Strategies Initiative. (2017). Investing in Workforce Program Innovation: A Formative Evaluation of Five Workforce Organizations’ Experiences During the Human Capital Innovation Fund Initiative. ↩
See New York City Housing Authority Family Rentry Pilot as a model. ↩
Department of Housing and Urban Development. (June 2016). It Starts with Housing: Public Housing Agencies are Making Second Chances Real. ↩
In addition to 1-1 services, employment navigators supported systems-level collaboration by assembling cross-sector teams to jointly address a family’s barriers to both employment and housing. These teams included the family itself, the workforce system’s navigator, the housing system’s rapid re-housing case manager, and other service providers working closely with the family, such as emergency shelter providers. See Heartland Alliance Case Study: King County Rapid Re-Housing for Families Pilot. ↩
The initial results from the pilot are promising. The average monthly income of families who worked with an employment navigator increased by $338 between program entry and exit, while the average monthly income for those who did not work with an employment navigator went up by only $56. Families who worked with an employment navigator were more likely to exit to permanent housing, and no family who exited to permanent housing and worked with an employment navigator returned to homelessness within 24 months. See Heartland Alliance Case Study: King County Rapid Re-Housing for Families Pilot. ↩