What We Do

Washington State

Homelessness and Family Stability



A family outside their home at Croft Place in West Seattle.

Our Goal:

to reduce family homelessness and improve the systems that respond to families experiencing housing crises in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties.

The Challenge

At A Glance

Families with children represent nearly half of the 20,000 people who are homeless on any given night in Washington State. 

About one child in four has a family that struggles to pay for basic needs such as food and housing. 

Building Changes, a Seattle-based nonprofit, is the foundation’s main partner and works with local and state government systems to dramatically reduce family homelessness. 

Homelessness and family stability is a focus of the Gates Foundation’s work in Washington State.

Washington State is a center of innovation and home to some of the most successful businesses in the world, but problems of social inequity and poverty persist. Too many families with children are homeless. In fact, in a count led by schools in Washington State during the 2011-2012 school year—as required by the McKinney-Vento Act—more than 27,000 students were identified as homeless.

Homelessness has a profound impact on children’s health and education, as well as parents’ abilities to find a job and stay employed. Homeless children have twice the rate of emotional and behavioral issues—including anxiety, depression, and withdrawal.

Families can become homeless for many reasons. Today’s still fragile economy means that more families are unemployed, are earning lower wages, or have lost a home to foreclosure. Other factors—such as domestic violence, medical crises, and mental health or addiction—make families vulnerable. Even in the best economic times, affordable housing can be hard to find for families without skilled jobs.

The Opportunity

In 2000, as a first step in addressing family homelessness in Washington State, the foundation launched the Sound Families Initiative, an eight-year, $40 million program aimed at tripling the amount of available transitional housing—and pairing it with support services in the state’s three most populous counties: King, Pierce, and Snohomish. By its close in 2008, the initiative had spurred the creation of more than 1,400 transitional homes for families emerging from homelessness.

A mother and her son inside their home in Arlington.

Family homelessness has persisted, however, and the job is far from done. Meaningful reductions in family homelessness can be achieved only through a systematic, coordinated approach that provides at-risk families with the help they need, when they need it. Until recently, families who became homeless in Washington State had to contact multiple agencies for different kinds of assistance. Many languished on waiting lists for months. Those who obtained temporary housing often had to wait more than a year to get into a permanent home. 

All of this is slowly beginning to change. In 2009, partners in King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties boldly declared their commitment to dramatically reduce family homelessness. They joined with the private sector, nonprofits, and Washington State to sign a Memorandum of Understanding pledging to redouble efforts to reduce family homelessness over the next decade. With Building Changes—a nonprofit organization with more than 20 years of experience in homelessness—poised to lead the work, the time had come for a comprehensive response to homelessness.

Our Strategy

To cut key indicators of family homelessness in the Puget Sound region in half by 2020, we believe we must change the way that systems work to address the issue. The foundation is investing in a new approach, based on promising practices from around the nation and lessons we have learned from our work locally. We are working with Building Changes and the governments of King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties to more efficiently deploy existing funding and services from a broad range of sources. 

By 2020, we will work with these partners to reduce by half: the number of families that experience an episode of homelessness; the length of time families remain homeless; and the number of families returning to homelessness. 

In seeking to achieve these specific outcomes, our work seeks to influence a number of other indicators of family and child well-being that affect families in crisis.

To bring about systemic improvements, we identified five principles that have helped successfully reduce family homelessness in other U.S. communities. These principles guide our investments and the work of our community partners: 

  • Prevention. We can help keep families in their homes and prevent them from becoming homeless with services such as landlord mediation, help with overdue rent and utility bills, and emergency food, clothing, childcare, and transportation assistance.
  • Coordinated entry. Having one simple way to access support services—or one place to go for assistance— helps families get the help they need as quickly as possible and reduces waste and redundancies in the system. 
  • Rapid housing placement. We work to reduce the time families stay in emergency shelters with quick placements into permanent housing, often with rent subsidies tailored to each family’s specific situation.
  • Tailored programs. Flexible, coordinated support services that are tailored to each family’s specific needs are essential to helping them rebuild and maintain stability and self-sufficiency. 
  • Economic opportunity. Housing stability depends on good-paying jobs and stable, long-term employment. By linking services with income assistance, education, and employment programs, we can help people find jobs and remain in their homes. 

By applying these principles, we believe we can make the best use of a broad array of existing resources, promoting both financial efficiencies while maximizing the most effective use of housing and services.

Areas of Focus

County Plans

King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties are implementing comprehensive family homelessness plans based upon the five principles described above. These plans focus on preventing families from becoming homeless and quickly moving families who do become homeless into permanent housing, paired with the right kind of support to stabilize and thrive.

Building Changes works with its county partners to align public and private efforts toward the work identified in these county plans. It also encourages governments at all levels, service providers, and philanthropic donors to collaborate in developing and disseminating innovative approaches and to help the various systems work in mutually reinforcing ways on behalf of families.

A Tacoma family found stable housing through support from Catholic Community Services.

This includes leveraging dollars already available through the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), Public Housing Authorities and private nonprofit affordable housing providers, workforce development councils, child welfare and domestic violence systems, community colleges, school districts, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and the Affordable Care Act for health care—all funding streams with programs that aid homeless families. Where possible, the counties and their partners are also tapping into new resources.

All three counties receive support for their efforts through Systems Innovation Grants awarded by Building Changes. These grants provide the funding that counties need to address how a countywide system serves homeless families, rather than how one organization or county department serves a targeted population. For example, Building Changes and King County are currently offering capacity-building grants to support organizations across the community that are looking to transform from providing time-limited transitional housing to a rapid re-housing approach that quickly helps families find a permanent home.

Below are a few examples of the progress each county is making.

  • Coordinated Entry. King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties have developed coordinated entry systems to integrate local efforts. Each county’s model is uniquely designed to best leverage the individual county’s resources. However, they all built on a shared goal: to create a common way for families to quickly and easily access services. With coordinated entry in place, people experiencing homelessness will not need to call dozens of agencies for help, and service providers can more efficiently people experiencing homelessness will not need to call dozens of agencies for help, and service providers can more efficiently serve clients.

    Pierce County was the first to launch a coordinated entry program in early 2011. The early results are encouraging: more families are being quickly stabilized, and the vacancy rate in the county’s available shelter and transitional housing units is close to zero, down from a high of nearly 15 percent.
  • Rapid housing placement. Data and evidence show that getting homeless families rapidly back into housing helps them to become self-sufficient more quickly. This approach, called rapid re-housing, is often less expensive than the cost of lengthy shelter or transitional housing stays. Recent research indicates that the vast majority (85 percent or more) of rapidly re-housed families never fall back into homelessness. Rapid re-housing programs often help with housing searches, rental assistance, and tailored support services.

Each county is working to expand rapid re-housing programs to help local families stabilize faster. By reducing reliance on transitional housing, an expensive intervention for providers and counties, communities can generate savings and help more families. Communities can also provide more intensive support and services, such as transitional housing and permanent supportive housing, to a smaller number of families with more complex, intensive support needs.

Learning From The Data

The foundation is supporting a robust evaluation program to track progress in reducing family homelessness. In working with the research company Westat, Inc., as well as Building Changes, each county is dedicated to learning what is working and will measure their success in three ways:

  • Families. Using a variety of measures, we will work collectively to determine whether fewer families are becoming homeless. We will also look at families who became homeless and measure whether they stayed in housing longer, received services more quickly, had fewer children enter foster care, and increased their incomes.
  • Organizational Changes. Working with service providers, we will examine whether families were provided with services more effectively and efficiently.
  • Systems Changes. We will look into how different systems worked together to improve collaborative efforts to serve homeless families.

Every year, we will have better data available to help us understand the complexities of family homelessness, and design the best possible responses that can help us prevent or rapidly respond to families at risk of or experiencing homelessness. The lessons we learn inform work across the state, so that in the future, communities can provide every family the opportunity to live up to its potential and no child lacks a safe place to call home.

Emerging Efforts

Domestic Violence

Domestic violence is a leading cause of homelessness for women and children, because many women who flee their abusers have no place to go, face discrimination, and lose hours at work. With the aim of eliminating housing as a reason to stay in an abusive relationship, we partner with the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence and a group of service providers across the state on the Domestic Violence Housing First program.

The program focuses on helping survivors retain or access permanent housing quickly—often bypassing emergency shelters. Survivors and their children also receive tailored services based on their unique needs, including transportation support, career training, and temporary financial assistance so they can safely remain in their homes.

The program serves families with high barriers to housing stability, including recent immigrants and refugees, and families in rural areas or on tribal reservations with limited affordable housing options. To date, nearly 80 percent of families that received Housing First support retained or accessed permanent housing.

Child Welfare

Recent data suggests that nearly 40 percent of all homeless families in Washington State are involved with the child welfare system. A recent study in King, Pierce, and Snohomish Counties indicates that 25 percent of homeless families have children separated from their parents either voluntarily or through child protective services/court order. In order to address the particular needs of this large contingent of families, we have supported a unique collaboration between the state’s child welfare agency and more than 15 housing authorities to combine housing resources with child welfare funding to improve this population’s ability to develop and maintain housing stability for their children.

This housing-child welfare partnership was a component of Washington State’s successful Title IV-E Waiver application to the federal government, which will allow greater flexibility of child welfare resources to support safe reunifications and secure permanent homes for children and their families.


We cannot end family homelessness without uniting voices from different groups across our communities to increase the visibility of the issue and prioritize effective responses. For that reason, our strategy supports a range of advocacy activities, including efforts to increase the resources available at the local and state levels for affordable housing development.

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