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Homelessness Leadership Summit: using fierce data to inform local programs

Discussing what works and what does not

An exciting project took place throughout October that I am extremely proud to share with readers this month. SideWalk and the Interfaith Overnight Shelter, both programs of Interfaith Works, partnered to conduct vulnerability assessments five nights a week with people who are street dependent in and around downtown Olympia. The assessment asks questions such as: In the past six months, how many times have you been to the emergency department/room? How many times have you had interaction with the police? How many times have you been hospitalized as an inpatient, including hospitalizations in a mental health hospital? Does anyone force or trick you into doing anything you don’t want to do?

The assessment tool they are using is called a VI-SPDAT, Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, which was created and designed by two national organizations–Community Solutions and OrgCode Consulting. The tool is designed to help communities quickly assess the health and social needs of people experiencing homelessness. At of the writing of this article, 132 assessments had already been completed and entered into a spreadsheet and sorted by highest to lowest according to the vulnerability index.

The vulnerability assessment not only allows us to know who is most vulnerable on the streets because of a physical or mental illness, addiction or being preyed upon, it also helps us to identify high users of expensive systems of care such as police, jails, emergency rooms, EMTs, and mental health hospitals.

The following chart shows the cost per day, per person when people access these interventions. Too often, people with chronic mental illness lose all supports, become homeless and many become high users of the most expensive services on this chart.

For the first time in our community, people will be offered a shelter bed in the new Interfaith Overnight Shelter based on data (vulnerability scores) rather than on a first-come, first-served basis.   The shelter will offer their 30 beds to those who score highest in vulnerability based on the assessments conducted in October. The 12 shelter beds provided by St. Michaels and Sacred Heart Churches will be offered to those scoring next highest in vulnerability. Controlled studies in other communities across the nation show significant cost savings when high users of expensive systems of care are sheltered and housed in supportive housing.   Short shelter stays that lead to stable housing are cheaper and more humane than the other interventions. It is much cheaper for communities to figure out how to shelter and house people with appropriate supports than it is to do nothing at all.

I have to admit, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with data.

My daughter and I discussed a math problem recently. It went something like this: Sally is on the middle step of a ladder. If Sally goes down 4 steps, then up 7 steps, and then down 13 steps, she will be on the very first step of the ladder. How many steps does the ladder have altogether?

We joked that Associate of Science students get to work on the problem, but Associate of Arts students ask what is Sally doing on that ladder?

What is happening in the field of housing people who have become homeless is we are holding in balance both of those tendencies; we are looking at what the data shows is most effective and efficient at stabilizing people’s housing and we are doing that in a way that meets people where they are mentally, physically and emotionally.

Meg Martin, Program Director for the Interfaith Overnight Shelter and Phil Owen, Program Director for SideWalk both say that this is why they are working together on the vulnerability assessment project.   They are looking forward to where we need to be as a community to house the most difficult to house.

The vulnerability assessment project is the latest example of how our homeless system is collecting data and using that information to track performance and outcomes. We aim to stabilize housing for people experiencing homelessness and we are tracking how effective our programs are creating those outcomes. At the Homelessness Leadership Summit in May, Phil Owen hosted a discussion about fierce data. Employing this nationwide best practice of targeting shelter and supportive housing to those who are high users of expensive public services is something that makes me proud of our community and the individuals like Meg and Phil who are making it happen.

If you would like to be a part of the great work that both of these programs do, please consider becoming a volunteer at SideWalk or the Overnight Shelter, or both! Email Aslan at for more information.

It begins with outreach, engagement and providing safety. that builds trust and a sense of relationship. to collect vulnerability assessments and to prioritize shelter beds and supportive housing units.

Theresa Slusher has over 20 years of experience in the field of affordable and homeless housing. She has worked for non-profit organizations, government and as an independent consultant. Her career follows a pattern of making positive impacts in one area, then looking ahead to where she could be of further service. Much of her work of the past ten years has been in community impact at the local, county and state levels in the field of affordable housing and homeless housing systems.

This article is the fourth in a series coming out of the Olympia Homelessness Summit held in May of 2014. The Summit was meant to be a convening of leaders, but was also meant to be the start of a longer community conversation.

Please visit the Facebook page dedicated to continuing this important conversation:

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