Grow. Change. And Thrive!

written by Guest Blogger, Tess Colby, Housing, Community Development and Homeless Programs Manager, Pierce County, Washington
November 15, 2016

The Alliance has released the five key strategies for advancing rapid re-housing. Those strategies are: Build the Evidence, Adopt Standards of Excellence and Practice, Make Rapid Re-Housing Part of Your System, Expand the Role of Partners and Acquire New Resources. This blog discusses the first key strategy, Build the Evidence.


A little over a decade ago I attended a conference for Community Development Financial Institutions with the theme “Grow. Change. Or Die.” Ouch! It was meant to be alarming, meant to be a wake-up call. It was meant as a call to arms and it worked. The institutions took up the challenge, changed how they do business and now that sector of the financial world has greater impact than ever before.

It occurs to me – the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has essentially been throwing down this same challenge to Continuums of Care (CoC). Grow our permanent housing options. Change how we think about success. Or… well, the pain of this last CoC round speaks for itself.

Maybe it’s not a threat. Maybe it’s an opportunity - to Grow, Change and Thrive.

What the Data Told Us

Like a lot of CoCs, we dabbled in change at first. We dove head first into the concept of coordinated entry by creating a Centralized Intake process, but we stepped more cautiously into the RRH arena with a pilot just for families. These test runs made us all a little grayer, but they also gave us new information that helped us understand our investments as a system, not a random assembly of programs. And they gave us courage to do more.

Within a year of opening Centralized Intake, we had tons of data about who was seeking services, who was getting referrals to programs (and why) and, most importantly, who was not. Before Centralized Intake, we had no central wait list. Suddenly having access to that data was awesome… and in itself, a call to arms.

  • Our system didn’t prioritize need: most people getting assistance were not literally homeless. In 2012, only 40 percent of persons served were literally homeless.
  • Our system was clogged, which created a huge wait list: the majority of our programs operated transitional housing with very low-turn-over rates, so there weren’t enough program vacancies each month for people in need. In 2013, just 10 percent of households seeking housing ever got a referral.
  • Our system wasn’t person–centered: referrals were driven by program rules, not household need, so low barrier families were receiving housing services while higher barrier single adults were not. Families were twice as likely to get a housing referral than single adults were.

How Pierce County Changed

All this data from Centralized Intake served as the launch pad for the design of our homeless crisis response system.

  • We reallocated our investments away from Transitional Housing and to Rapid Rehousing: in 2012, 40 percent of total investments were in TH. In 2017, it’s down to 1 percent!
  • We expanded rapid rehousing to all populations. So far this year RRH programs have assisted about 180 families with children and 80 single adults regain housing. Still not parity, but we’re making progress towards a more balanced approach to ending homelessness across our entire community.
  • This year we transformed Centralized Intake into Coordinated Entry with Prioritization and it has truly become the front door to our crisis response system.
    • We narrowed our eligibility to literal homelessness. We had to – we don’t have enough resources for people sleeping outside, let alone for those who are doubled-up or couch surfing.
    • Using a vulnerability and housing barrier assessment tool, we make referrals based on the household need, not program rules. In fact, we won’t fund programs with rules that create barriers and our performance-based contracts monitor referral acceptance rates. 
    • We incorporated a problem-solving approach to Coordinated Entry, connecting people to mainstream services and diverting them from a long wait for housing. This quick hand-up prevents long-stays in shelter or on the streets. Since we started this approach in Oct 2014, over 600 households have been diverted with just a 5 percent return rate.

Because we shifted our focus to a crisis response system and we regularly track outcomes and impact, we have gone from a collection of programs with little or no growth in the exits to permanent housing year over year, to a dynamic, responsive system with that has increased exits to permanent housing by 120 percent since 2012.

AND we’re seeing a trend towards declines in returns to homelessness.

Of course, we’re nowhere close to the finish line. There’s more innovation needed to improve outcomes. But we’ve made a lot of progress. Change is the new normal, and we’re OK with that!