Sometimes, lifting families out of homelessness requires a large investment of government time and money.
Other times, it just requires a light touch at a critical moment.
That's one conclusion of a study analyzing the results of a strategy called "diversion" in Pierce County.
Beginning in 2014, service providers for the county tried to resolve the immediate cause of a person's homelessness as quickly as possible, before putting them on waiting lists for more expensive forms of help.
In other words, they looked for ways to divert people out of the county's overwhelmed social services system by finding creative — and fast — alternatives.
Sometimes, that means calling a landlord to resolve a dispute or helping a family identify a relative they could stay with.
Other times, it means providing some one-time money for a security deposit or application fee.
That level of help worked for about half of the 939 families who received it in Pierce County from October 2014 through September 2016, according to the analysis.
Most of those families have not returned to the county for more help, indicating to researchers that they likely stayed out of homelessness.
The data was crunched by a Seattle nonprofit called Building Changes, which advocates for anti-homelessness strategies like diversion and helps local governments put them into action. The group helped launch the pilot program in Pierce County.
"What we found through this project, and what sort of incited this project to begin with, is that a lot of people do self-resolve their homelessness," said Liza Burell, the program director for Building Changes.
"So the idea was like, 'What if we add a little bit? What if we could figure out a little bit on the front end?" she said. "And maybe it's a way to sort of amp up that self-resolution."
Diversion starts with a frank conversation about the limits of social service systems and how long families may have to wait for more intense forms of help, such as rapid re-housing, Burell said.
Then the conversation shifts to alternatives.
"There's a lot of questions asked in the beginning just to help the person think through all the possibilities," Burell said. "And then the process happens that they winnow down to an actionable plan."
If a solution doesn't emerge within an hour or so of talking, that usually means diversion won't work and the family needs more assistance, Burell said.
The data only pertains to families with children because the pilot program only received funding for that demographic.
Here are some highlights:
- Diversion worked for 52 percent of families.
- About a third of those families didn't need any financial help at all.
- Of those who did, the median amount was about $1,200.
- When diversion worked, it took a median of 36 days to get a family into housing.
- Most families — 81 percent — did not return for more help within a year.
King County launched its own diversion efforts in 2014.
Building Changes is helping four other counties — Clark, Kittitas, Spokane, and Whatcom — use diversion as well.