Family Homelessness 2.0

Editor’s note: This is reposted with permission from Impatient Optimists, the blog of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the authors.

By  , , Everyone deserves a home

Those of us who have been engaged in efforts to end family homelessness over the past decade need to acknowledge one of two things: Either the work is extremely complex and difficult, or we’re not very good at our jobs. While both of these statements could be true, given the time, talent, and passion that so many have been focusing on this issue for so long, we conclude (and hope) that the first statement is more accurate.There are many different crises that can catapult a family into homelessness: Loss of a job, domestic violence, accidents or serious illness, and inter-generational poverty – to name just a few. In addition, despite efforts to coordinate, past experiences in responding to homelessness have shown us that, although admirable, fragmented, non-integrated efforts to solve this problem by organizations and systems working independently and on their own have not stemmed the tide of this crisis.

The good news is that we now know what works: Coordinated Entry is an emerging practice that, when it is working effectively, helps to target equitably the right type and intensity of intervention to each family. Decades of practice (and tradition) have resulted in high levels of fragmentation across the many service systems families may touch in their efforts to seek stability. Coordinated entry offers a systemic intervention predicated on a very simple belief: Families in crisis should not have to “work the system” to find the supports that they need. Rather, the system should work for them.

In addition, rapidly returning families to permanent housing and connecting them to the specific supports and services they need to promote stability are proving in communities across the nation to be among the most efficient and effective ways to end family homelessness. Simply stated; families experiencing homelessness need housing first. This can be an uphill climb; in the current environment in the Puget Sound region affordable housing is a precious and scarce commodity. Providers working to quickly identify permanent housing for homeless families face daily challenges with rents increasing at record rates, inequities in access to housing, and extremely high competition for existing housing units.

Coordinated entry and promoting access to permanent housing and the right mix of services tailored to each family’s needs are critical first steps in moving toward solutions to family homelessness. Creating a systemic response that effectively responds to the complex, individual needs of each homeless family requires levels of collaboration and integration that have, historically, been unfamiliar and sometimes considered suspect by even the most dedicated system leaders and providers of care.

In this challenging context, introducing new, collaborative responses have proven difficult to organize and even harder to implement. Nevertheless, data from communities across the nation tells us we can be highly successful when our efforts are focused first and foremost on rapidly returning families to housing.

We haven’t always gotten these collective solutions right the first time around, despite the very best of intentions. Here in King County, for example, the first version of a coordinated entry system for homeless families – called Family Housing Connections – proved to be cumbersome and complex, and resulted in long waits for help that appeared on the surface to be worse than the chaotic absence of a collective response that had existed previously.

It’s a tribute to organizational leadership and line staff providers that we all didn’t throw up our hands in frustration and decide simply to return to the absence of a system we had before we started. Instead, leaders and providers worked together to carefully examine what was going wrong with the efforts – why families were waiting too long for assistance and housing – and revised the approach to address the specific problems that had been identified.

As a result, an overhaul of the King County family homelessness coordinated entry system is now underway, and as both NPR and the homeless newspaper Real Change have noted, we’re beginning to see improvements in both the length of time families wait for help and the speed with which they are being re-housed. With continued collaboration to implement more significant changes, even more dramatic improvements are imminent.

Mark Twain said that “Nobody likes change except a wet baby.” There’s a real truth there. Change is hard, especially when the changes being made are attempting to undo a crisis like family homelessness that has been decades in the making and is rooted in a constellation of economic, political, and social issues.

Looking at a problem from a systems perspective and making changes that promote collaborative solutions that were not in place before, can provide clear pathways to improved responses to the needs of those families experiencing the most extreme crises. It’s not easy. It’s not simple. It requires patience, and the willingness to look at what’s going badly in order to determine what needs to be done to do better.

That’s exactly what is happening right now in King County and in communities across the nation. All of us learn the hard way on a daily basis that new responses to extreme challenges like homelessness rarely get the solution right the first time around. Rather than abandoning all hope and returning to even more dysfunction, coming up with Version 2.0 of a solution can offer the promise of moving in the direction where we’re finally getting it right.

State’s leading anti-poverty advocate retires

If you’ve spent much time in the corridors of power around Olympia, you’ve no doubt heard The Laugh. It is disarmingly loud, boisterous and endearing. When Tony Lee unleashes, his laughter cascades over and through everything in its way. Perhaps it’s a secret to his success.



For nearly three decades, the last 19 years as Advocacy Director at Solid Ground, Tony has been the state’s leading lobbyist on issues impacting poor people. With his retirement this week, he steps out of the limelight to spend more time with his family.

Well known for his affable manner, keen analytical mind, and passionate commitment, Tony has had his hand in the creation and protection of many state policies that promote equity and equal opportunity for people living on low incomes in Washington State.

For instance, he was a driving force behind the creation of the state’s Food Assistance Program, which extended food benefits to tens of thousands of legal immigrants who were excluded from food stamp eligibility.

“Tony Lee is a really special human being, with a huge laugh, and huge heart and brains to go along with it, all of which are put to the service of improving and saving the lives of the most vulnerable people in our state,” says Diane Narasaki, Executive Director, Asian Counseling and Referral Service.

An immigrant who earned a law degree, Tony abandoned the practice of  law to spend the bulk of his career as an advocate, working to make laws more just.

“Everyday people of color face discrimination in the housing market, in lending practices, in our school system,” Tony says. “Not intentional perhaps, but the impacts are there. That is really one of the big reasons I’ve done what I’ve done.”

“Tony Lee is the conscience of Washington State when it comes to helping poor people,” says Frank Chopp, Speaker of the Washington State House of Representatives.

Tony defers, crediting the people he represents: “I speak with more credibility when I can say ‘our agency sees people in need and here are the needs we see.’ ”

Through his work with Evergreen Legal Services, the Washington Association of Churches and Solid Ground, Tony has been a leader in multi-racial organizing and advocacy that resulted in progress on issues spanning welfare reform, food security, housing and the achievement gap in education. He worked as Solid Ground’s Advocacy Director from August 1995 through September 2014. Tony was a founding member of the Statewide Poverty Action Network in 1996 and played an essential role in its development and direction.

Tony will continue to serve as Solid Ground’s Advocacy Senior Fellow, supporting Solid Ground’s Board, CEO, Advocacy Department and the Statewide Poverty Action Network on public policy issues pertaining to education, basic needs programs, and funding for health and human services, including programs serving refugees and immigrants.

Tony, thanks for your commitment, your passion and your laugh. The world is a better place because of you.

For more on what Tony Is



Leadership conference increases skills to ending poverty

Recently, I had the privilege of attending Western States Center’s Community Strategic Training Initiative (CSTI) in Portland, Oregon. As a volunteer with the Solid Ground Advisory Council and a supporter of the Lettuce Link Program, I was honored to get an opportunity to strengthen my community leadership skills. It was refreshing to meet people from different communities and learn about different perspectives and make a few new friends.


Poverty isn't natural

The workshops I attended shaped my views as a community leader and helped give me a greater focus on my role and direction moving forward as a community building advocate. An organization called Smartmeme addressed the power of stories and gave me tools on how to develop new understanding about old stories and community issues.

They taught that,”The currency of narrative is not truth, but meaning…The power of Myth helps us understand our place in the world.” They encouraged participants to “Reclaim images and give them a new meaning.” So I decided to use these strategies with the concept and experience of poverty, to attempt to give it a new meaning in my life. I often find inspiration for understanding complex issues in my life from spending time in the garden. And when I looked for poverty in the garden, I didn’t see it. So, it leads me to believe that it isn’t a natural state of being. Abundance is everywhere, when I choose to connect with it instead of lack.

women staring into space

I'm not daydreaming. It's empowered disengagement.

This idea of changing my relationship with poverty was echoed in the next workshop I attended. “Build on abundance, not scarcity” was the main point that I walked away with. It was a workshop called 1+1 + 10 – Base building for Strong Organizations and Healthier Communities. We ended up talking about building strong political campaigns. I hate politics. I ended up spending a lot of time calming my frustration by staring out the window and strengthening my relationship with the sunshine and trees. That was until the thought came to me about “empowered disengagement.” I’d never heard the term before but began to define it as the power to make a decision to actively disengage from a conversation or system and resist it simply by creating something different. So instead of challenging the belief system that I do not support or staring out the window, I simply began to contemplate and write about a system of order that I would support. What would replace politicians in my life and mind? I wrote and wrote and wrote until I realized what I needed, connection to strong community leaders. Many times they are the common everyday folks that watch out for our children, who keep an eye out on our homes when we are out-of-town, who get extra food from the food bank with us in mind. Or they are the faith-based, nonprofit-based leaders who advocate for the needs of society’s most vulnerable. This was the style of leadership that I decided I wanted to support and focus on moving forward.

Ella Baker

I was most moved by the film called “Fundi: The Story of Ella Baker.” Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia STAND-UP, co-facilitated a discussion about leadership development and skill building and used this story to encourage discussion about great leadership styles. I was most moved by the Ella Baker story, a civil rights activist, and her practice of horizontal leadership. She nurtured the leader in every person. She helped facilitate for others independence. She inspired people of all colors to act, discuss, and explore the issues around human justice. She helped people understand fear tactics that discouraged the building of movements and encouraged them to break through to fears with clear objective.

After the conference, I began to write my path to liberation from poverty. For a personal story that came out of this experience visit and read The Day Poverty Died. Thank you Solid Ground for giving me an opportunity to grow as a community leader.

%d bloggers like this: