Extending our Successes with Diversion to Help Families Quickly Exit Homelessness
Solutions to homelessness sometimes emerge by taking approaches we already know to be successful and applying them differently. Such is the case with diversion, which was developed as a targeted strategy to prevent individuals and families from needing to enter the homelessness services system.
In the state of Washington, we have compelling new evidence demonstrating that diversion practice also can be used as an effective and efficient system-wide strategy to help those who already are experiencing homelessness.
Since 2014, Building Changes has worked with several counties, nonprofits and philanthropies to test diversion as an approach for families to exit homelessness quickly, safely and simply. Of the 1,898 families served through our two pilots in King County (Seattle area) and Pierce County (Tacoma area), about half (49%) found safe housing, doing so within a median of 37 days. Most (76%) ended up in their own rental unit without a housing subsidy, which is noteworthy in a housing market like ours that features extremely low vacancy rates and very high-priced rents.
Inspired by the outcomes, I would encourage systems across the country to integrate diversion practices as the first response to families experiencing a homelessness crisis. By that, I mean embed diversion at every front door where people experiencing homelessness access services.
Diversion strategies for families looking to resolve their homelessness cover much of the same ground as that for preventing it. Diversion techniques engage families early in their homelessness crisis, with no pre-screening or pre-determination as to likelihood for success. Through an exploratory conversation, a staff member trained in diversion techniques prompts families to identify realistic housing options based on their own resources rather than those of the system. To ease their transition out of homelessness, families also are able to leverage one-time financial assistance to help cover expenses like first-month’s rent or security deposit.
For some families, tapping into their own existing relationships represents their best shot at becoming housed quickly because local resources—rapid re-housing, for example—may be scarce and not readily available to them.
Results from our pilots in King County and Pierce County demonstrate the effectiveness of expanding the use of diversion approaches to families already experiencing homelessness. The data are featured prominently in two new publications from Building Changes that we have titled Homeless to Housed in a Hurry. They include an overview of how this model of diversion works to help families exit homelessness, along with a case study of its implementation in Pierce County.
We recognize that definitions of diversion differ in communities across the country. As a result, the way we use the term may not conform to how others may understand diversion. Our reports provide greater detail on how we define diversion in Washington state and how we are integrating diversion strategies at new points in our systems.
As you review our reports and the data within, please keep in mind that many of the families successfully housed through this model of diversion may have stayed on waitlists and never have received the housing services they were seeking. For these families, we were able to offer support through diversion but potentially little else.
Among the families successfully housed through our diversion pilots, the vast majority (82.6%) did not return to homelessness within a year. This piece of data is very significant as it suggests that once families put the crisis and chaos of homelessness behind them, they are able to figure things out on their own and remain safely housed.
Our evaluation also shows that the use of diversion practices is cost-effective. The average cost to get a family housed in our pilots was $1,668, which is low compared to other interventions. In our Pierce County pilot, fully one-third of the families that obtained housing through diversion did so without receiving any direct financial assistance.
Based on the results of our pilots, I am convinced that extending the use of diversion techniques to help those who already are experiencing homelessness carries great potential for the field and is worthy of public and private investment. It not only expands our potential to improve as a homelessness response system, it also is a service to the countless people for whom diversion practices can provide a quick, low-cost and lasting solution to their homelessness.
Helen Howell is executive director of Building Changes, a Seattle-based nonprofit that pulls together government, philanthropy and nonprofits in a collective effort to impact family and youth homelessness in Washington state. Contact her at: Helen.Howell@BuildingChanges.org