Azia Ruff, Tatyana Barron and Jamie Thoburn arrived at the Pacific Tower — the fortress-like red, tiered building perched atop Beacon Hill — in mid-April for the two-day launch party of a drive to get hundreds of young people into housing.
All three were formerly homeless youth, and all three would use their experiences to improve the systems serving their peers.
The 100-Day Challenge, announced by A Way Home Washington and sponsored by the Raikes and Schultz Family foundations, brought together big players in homeless services in King, Pierce and Spokane counties with Rapid Results Institute, a firm that provided coaching and support, to brainstorm and implement new strategies to get kids off the streets.
Ruff and Barron — network representatives with the Mockingbird Society, a local organization that campaigns to improve the lot of homeless youth and young people in foster care — thought they would be seeing some inspirational speakers, chatting, enjoying the scene. What they didn’t know was that they, along with Thoburn and Minnie Bliesner, also with Mockingbird, would be active participants in guiding, informing and implementing policies for the next three months.
By the end of the launch, Ruff found herself colead of the King County team.
“I was not expecting that,” Ruff said.
At the end of July, 615 youth in King, Pierce and Spokane counties had moved indoors.
What followed were three months of experimentation where teams of specialists and young people, who had experienced or were experiencing homelessness, created and implemented ideas in three counties. At the end of July, 615 youth in those counties had moved indoors.
The 100-Day Challenge was about breaking away from business as usual and exploring opportunities for flexibility and creativity, said Mark Putnam, executive director of All Home King County, the organization that coordinates the county’s response to homelessness.
The challenge teams came up with policy changes and forwarded them to All Home, YouthCare or local government staff in charge of those programs, who did what they could to make the changes and create momentum, Putnam said.
The challenge housed 330 people in King County, roughly half of all those who found housing in those three months. During the same period of 2016, 194 King County youth were housed.
As she worked, the thought that Barron carried with her involved a tennis ball.
At the launch event, a facilitator with the Rapid Results Institute told a group to pass a tennis ball to every member, and the participants dutifully complied.
“So we’re all just throwing tennis balls, across, across, across, shaving off seconds and doing a little better,” Barron said.
Then the facilitator told them that 50 percent of people could do the activity in less than 10 seconds. But could they do it in 5?
“So then you have to start thinking creatively,” Barron said.
The King County team applied the same tactics to policies surrounding homelessness by bringing together specialists — case managers and others who assess people for services, for instance — so that all of the people who would be involved in a case involving a homeless youth could talk about ways to smooth out the bumps in the system.
What the team did not have were clear objectives or tasks beyond maximizing the number of young people who were housed at the end of three months, with a goal of 450.
Ruff’s job, along with her co-lead, was facilitating that conversation.
It took time to get up to speed on the terminology and how systems worked. For that, Ruff got an assist from Paula Carvalho, director of Youth Programs with the Mockingbird Society, who helped her with the logistics of bringing the team together and setting the agendas.
“Paula called herself my secretary, and I was so, like, tickled by that,” Ruff said, the room breaking into laughter.
In Pierce County, Thoburn and his team had a different set of issues.
Midway through the challenge, the team shifted strategies. Of the 168 people they hoped to house, fewer than 50 had been placed, so they split into four subgroups. Thoburn went from being a high-energy motivator and sticky-note wrangler to conducting direct outreach.
Thoburn had experienced homelessness in Tacoma. He knew the population, and where they could be found. So he and a teammate went out to speak with people and get them the information they needed to accesses resources.
“I know half the homeless kids in Tacoma,” Thoburn said. “It’s pretty easy for me to reach them.”
That personal contact is critical, because cell phones are one of the most common items stolen, he said. People can fall off the radar, not because they don’t need help, but because their contact information was out of date.
As the challenge progressed, Tacoma’s only youth shelter became a hub for coordinated entry, meaning case workers could give their clients an assessment that would then funnel them into appropriate housing throughout Pierce County.
“It cut out the middle man. I think that’s a huge systemic change in Pierce County,” Thoburn said.
Although the content of his message changed, Thoburn said he still did outreach when bus schedules to and from Tacoma and Seattle allowed him to tell people about their options at the youth shelter.
“I can still do outreach to tell people, ‘Hey, get your coordinated entry assessment, they can get you a place.’ I think that’s valuable to hear from me because I was housed through coordinated entry. Twice, actually,” he said. “Just good news — there are people who will help.”
In King County, the team also strove to make it easier for youth to enter the system, shorten wait times and make existing options more attractive.
They held a one-stop-shop event to simplify the process of signing up for housing, and made it easier for organizations to fill their own housing independently, rather than wait for a qualified applicant through the coordinated entry system. They also made it possible for people to enter rapid rehousing in pairs to better preserve natural connections.
“If a young person has been on the streets, you can’t just be like let’s put you into an institutionalized housing placement for two years, work on your case for a little bit and when you’re done, hey, go into your $1,500-a-month apartment and good luck to you,” Ruff said.
With the challenge ended, the teams will now begin processing the experience and answer the question, “What next?”
Maintaining that level of focus, time and resources would be difficult at best. Now the job is to find out which strategies explored during the experimental period will stay and which will go.
Minimally, the full-court press on youth homelessness and its potential solutions elevated the issue in a way that might make future efforts more fluid, Putnam said.
“The spotlight helps,” Putnam said. “We need community partnerships, landlords working with us. We need youth, and young adults need jobs and educational opportunities. I think the work can continue to house people, work we’re paying providers to do and they’re doing a great job at.”
Soon there will be meetings discussing the results of the challenge. Then there will be reports. Maybe next year another 100 days will be designated to make change happen.
Ruff hopes that the effort made to involve young people in decisions about young people will not fall fallow for another nine months.
It’s not just about calling them to the table, it’s about preparing them to be productive members of the team so that they and the project benefit from their experience, she said.
“How things ran in the first place is how we got here,” Ruff said."