What would you do if medical bills from a disabling accident made it impossible to make rent or pay your mortgage?

There are many reasons that a family could find themselves without a home, from loss of a job or medical bills to loss of a loved one, divorce, domestic violence or abuse. On any given night, about 7,800 people – and over 4,000 families with children – in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties don’t have a place to sleep, cook, or call home . Children especially need the safety and stability that a home provides, and homelessness can be particularly devastating to families – that’s why the goal for our three counties is to minimize the risks by making homelessness rare and brief.

To help us meet this goal, we are collecting regular, consistent and accurate data, and we are using it to inform all of our practice and policymaking decisions.

To make homelessness rare, we need an accurate count of the number of families that are currently homeless and a way to look at trends over time. To make homelessness brief, we must track how long families are homeless, how long they spend waiting for the system to meet their needs and how often people return to homelessness after interventions.

We are focused on using data to inform decisions in order to better support families in need, but let’s be clear: data-driven decision-making is not without heart. Personal stories from the field help us connect emotionally, as individuals, as neighbors and as members of a community; these stories deepen our understanding of why homelessness happens and what we can do about it.

But there is no one entity responsible for ending homelessness – in order to get the information necessary to track and manage how many families are homeless, when and why, we have to coordinate between non-profits that provide social services, philanthropy and a multitude of city, county and state agencies. This is not an easy job.

Together with leaders in Pierce, King and Snohomish counties and Building Changes, we worked to create the infrastructure for clean, uniform collection of data in a shared tool – a data dashboard. This is not just a new database – we have been collecting statistics, demographics and homelessness information for a long time – but the dashboard allows us to look at the data quickly, flexibly and in a way that makes it easy to inform policy decisions.

In each county, service providers enter information about who, when, where and why, which is validated and pulled into the dashboard through a secure portal. The data is consistent, robust, accurate, and easy to access – what used to take weeks to discover can now be pulled up in seconds. That means that non-profits and local government decision-makers finally have the information they need to make data-driven decisions, and it means that we can evaluate ourselves against the goal of making homelessness rare and brief.

“We’re having a better, smarter conversation about how well we’re doing, what changes we need to make, and which programs are effective,” says Amanda Thompkins, a data project manager for King County.

For example, it used to take weeks to figure out how many people had returned to homelessness after an intervention – now those numbers are available at the touch of a button. In the rapid rehousing pilot program, which seeks to stabilize families in permanent housing as quickly as possible with support services such as landlord negotiation and short-term financial assistance, decision-makers review real time data at every meeting – and can make real time decisions to improve services.

“Showing people the data opens up new avenues,” said Jess Jorstad, a data program manager for Snohomish County. “It illuminates what the system really looks like. We can have conversations in a more interactive way, and because of that our emergency shelter providers are more open to partnering with rapid rehousing providers.”

Because the data is more nimble and easier to access, the dashboard allows each county to look closely at what types of housing works best for families in particular situations. “We can dive into the data during meetings,” said Valerie Pettit, a homeless program evaluator for Pierce County. “That’s what allows for data-driven decisions.”
It also helps us understand the challenges faced by families and more easily identify the sticking points. With more accurate information, we can do a better job of investing in what works.

By taking a holistic look at all of the data on family homelessness and different types of housing – emergency shelter, transitional housing, rapid rehousing, and affordable housing – we will be able to answer questions like:

  • How many homeless families are there?
  • Are there particular challenges or demographics that are showing up more often?
  • How long are families spending in emergency shelters and transitional housing?
  • Where are the gaps in the system and where are families falling through the cracks?
  • Which interventions are most effective in moving families out of homelessness and into homes?

But this is just the start of what good data can do – and our counties are already thinking about how to make sure they share information with every single program and provider to improve services and decision-making, or how to post data online in order to crowd-source policy ideas and solutions.

Right now, the average length of time that a family experiences homelessness is five months – that’s nearly half a year of living in a car or a tent or moving from shelter to shelter. Our goal is to reduce that time to no more than 30 days by 2020. By using better data to make smarter decisions, we are one step closer to making homelessness rare and brief.

This article is published in collaboration with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Jess Jorstad is Snohomish County’s Data Program Manager. Valerie Pettit is Pierce County’s Homeless Program Evaluator. Amanda Thompkins is King County’s Data Project Manager.

Image: Pedestrians walk past a man as he panhandles for money while sitting with a puppy on a sidewalk in the financial district of New York. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson