Data is essential to identifying what we need to do to end homelessness, and for making the case for collaboration across silos and systems.
When we think about homelessness, stories about real people are always more compelling than faceless numbers and nameless statistics. But data is essential to identifying what we need to do to end homelessness, and for making the case for collaboration across silos and systems. If we are to end homelessness in America, our mainstream systems serving a range of vulnerable populations must collaborate closely with our housing and homeless systems.
There are, for example, multiple systems that all touch vulnerable families in different and often disjointed ways. When they work on their own, these systems often do little to help resolve crises over the long term and increase family stability while simultaneously making the best possible use of highly limited resources. The unfortunate disconnect between the child welfare system and family homelessness is a case in point.
The chart below (from Washington state and prepared by Partners for Our Children) illustrates that―in the year prior to child welfare system involvement―significantly more families with children who were taken away from their parents needed to move in with friends or family, had been homeless, or were evicted.  In addition, the absence of safe and stable housing consistently remains one of the main barriers to reunification of these families when the parents are ready for this step.
And this is just the beginning of the bad news. Out-of-home care―itself an extremely expensive form of transitional housing for youth―is associated with less than desirable long-term outcomes. According to research by Casey Family Programs , for example, only 3 in 100 children placed in foster care will complete a four-year college degree before they are 25 years old. These poor outcomes for youth who experience foster care contribute significantly to continuing cycles of intergenerational poverty and homelessness.
These data underscore an important reality: If we are to end family homelessness, we must reach across the range of systems that all touch these families to ensure that we are doing the best possible job to house and stabilize families in the most effective and efficient ways.
Imagine, for example, if we could prevent the need for some of the most expensive child welfare interventions by re-deploying a portion of funds spent on out-of-home care to instead stabilize families in permanent housing and provide needed services and supports. While the Family Unification Voucher Program operated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development provides some incentive for efforts such as these, there is so much more we could be doing if we were able to reach across systems to promote integration of the resources already in play that target these families in such disparate ways.
Philanthropy, in partnership with government and the non-profit sector, could and should be leading the way for efforts of this type. We can bring flexible resources into play that can serve both as a catalyst for these conversations and the glue that cements cross-system partnerships in place. While we can only bring to the table a fraction of the public sector dollars already in play in these systems, we have the opportunity to use our resources to stimulate changes necessary to produce better outcomes for families while at the same time promoting more efficient use of scarce taxpayer funds.
That sounds like a win-win to me.
David Wertheimer is the Deputy Director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, as well as the Board Chair of Funders Together to End Homelessness. Find him at @DavidWSeattle.
Stay tuned over the next few weeks for an important announcement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that could promote precisely the types of partnerships our sector should be prioritizing for our work.