Until a few days ago the only way many homeless families in Washington could secure the services they needed was to contact, one by one, a long list of different service providers. No central "front door" existed that a parent could open to find housing for himself and his children, plus, say, job training.
An "assembly line" approach had prevailed, in which homeless families needed to trek back and forth between agencies, trying to cobble together the basics for repairing a life taken apart by sudden major illness, unemployment, corporate downsizing, the economic recession, or soaring housing costs.
And housing, the foundation on which a new life can be built, was hard to find. Families often discovered that the particular housing provider they were advised to contact had run out of available spaces. This would send them into repeated rounds of calling and visiting one agency after another, writing a separate application for each, and still waiting weeks to hear back.
On Tuesday (May 3), Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law a bill sponsored by Eastside Democratic Rep. Larry Springer and unanimously passed by the House and Senate, which will streamline access to services for homeless families and individuals. Now applicants will be able to telephone personal and family information safely to a central intake location, where data will be entered into the state's Homeless Information Management System. Care providers in the applicant's region will have secure, no-cost access to the information they need for determining the necessary resources and then finding out which are available from different agencies also in the system.
The seemingly minor new law marks major progress in cooperation among different service providers in Washington state, which have traditionally operated with high degrees of independence. Autonomous operations might have given each agency a satisfying sense of self-determination and self-sufficiency, but they also left accidental holes in the social safety net, multiplied similar services through unintentionally redundant decisions, and delayed assistance to families in need.
In fact, for all of Washington's progress in housing people without a roof over their heads, the state had overall lagged behind other states in coordinating actions to address the problem. For example, while groups such as the Committee to End Homelessness in King County had created innovative strategies for coordinating funders to accelerate the production of new housing units, providers in the state had generally not met new federal demands for developing an effective central intake system linked to a database shared by area programs. Some of the delay had been due to privacy concerns, especially on the part of agencies helping victims of domestic violence.
Enacting the new legislation required cooperation not only from the Washington legislature and the governor but also from the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Washington State Coalition for the Homeless, Committee to End Homelessness in King County, and Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, all working together under the leadership of Building Changes and the Washington Families Fund, whose support comes from the Washington legislature and other funders including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, United Way, Boeing, and Microsoft.
One small step for organizations, one giant leap for homeless families needing help.