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Working to end homelessness in Washington State

More than 20,000 people are homeless on any given night in Washington State; families comprise almost half of that number. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made its first investments to address homelessness in the state in 2000, with the primary aim of tripling the supply of transitional housing in the state’s three most populous counties: King, Pierce, and Snohomish. Over several years, the foundation’s efforts led to the creation of more than 1,400 transitional homes for families emerging from homelessness.

At the end of this effort, however, the region had more homeless families than when the work started. The foundation concluded from this experience that simply increasing housing would not result in the desired reductions in family homelessness overall, despite benefiting individual families. Rather, ending family homelessness would require a systematic, coordinated approach to help a broad range of support systems and housing providers work together in mutually reinforcing ways. For example, by studying local efforts to address homelessness, the foundation learned that families who became homeless in Washington State had to contact multiple agencies for different kinds of assistance and that many people languished on waiting lists for months. A single family would often interact with multiple case workers who had no means of sharing information with each other or coordinating their efforts.

The foundation began looking for a partner organization that could help align public and private efforts to combat homelessness in the state and could encourage governments, service providers, and philanthropic donors to collaborate on implementing innovative approaches from around the country. It chose Building Changes, a small Seattle-based nonprofit created several decades earlier to focus on the housing needs of people living with AIDS. Known at the time as AIDS Housing of Washington, the organization was also administering a statewide grant program to address homelessness called the Washington Families Fund.

Compassionate Arm Wrestling

Over a three-year period starting in 2007, the foundation and Building Changes worked intensively to prepare the nonprofit organization—in terms of infrastructure, staffing, expertise, and business planning—to be a partner in implementing the foundation’s priorities in the area of family homelessness. In the course of that process, which the foundation’s David Wertheimer calls “interesting, at times challenging, and occasionally painful to both organizations,” the two parties came to forge a relationship based on trust, candor, transparency, and flexibility.

“It became a highly mutual planning process over time,” says Wertheimer, who is deputy director of the foundation’s Pacific Northwest program and oversees the foundation’s work on homelessness. Building Changes developed the strength to push back when necessary, and the foundation in turn became more flexible and collaborative. “We aren’t necessarily the smartest thinkers on the block,” he says of the foundation. “We need to be open to perspectives that differ from our own, and that can happen only when we listen to our partners. They are working in a highly complicated environment.”

“As a partner, you have to own your role and your power,” says Alice Shobe, the executive director of Building Changes. She describes the relationship as “compassionate arm wrestling,” which for Building Changes involved both being candid and asking clearly and directly for what they needed. “This fostered mutual agreement and a collaborative partnership between the foundation and Building Changes,” she says.

Launching a Strategy

The strategy shared by the foundation and Building Changes officially launched in 2009, with the goal of reducing family homelessness in the region by half by 2020. Priorities include services to prevent families from becoming homeless, a single point of access for all housing and support services, rapid placement in permanent housing, tailored services to meet each family’s specific needs, and programs to help people train for and find stable jobs. The efforts are focused in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, which means that collaborating with county governments is central to the success of the strategy.

Wertheimer acknowledges that Building Changes took a huge risk in agreeing to work with the foundation. “They faced the task of changing fundamentally who they were as an organization and working with an entirely new theory of change to address the issue of homelessness,” he says. “It was a big bet for them, and it really stretched them—and us—in new and challenging ways.”

He says the relationship has grown so transparent that the foundation even shares with Building Changes the formerly confidential internal strategy review documents prepared annually for foundation leadership. “It’s taken years to build this level of trust and openness,” he says. “We need to do our best to step out of the perceived power imbalance between grantee and funder to achieve that level of communication. It’s all about making the best use of the creative tension and disagreements that offer the opportunity for insight and growth.”

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