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Shifting the Paradigm of the Homeless Response System

How Seattle-King County is advancing housing justice through wellbeing

What could it look like to push back on harmful narratives about homelessness and create a homeless response system rooted in community and wellbeing? One place to start is with Continuums of Care. Continuums of Care are federally mandated entities that are responsible for the oversight and operation of regional homeless response systems across the country. They decide how funds will be deployed and what types of programs will be implemented. They also influence local values and narratives, such as why homelessness is so prevalent and whose voices matter the most.

In a region with one of the largest populations of people in need of housing, Seattle-King County is harnessing the power of Continuums of Care to do things differently. Nationally recognized as one of the most diverse oversight boards in the country, Seattle-King County’s Continuum of Care is led primarily by people with lived experience of homelessness. It’s also the first Continuum of Care to adopt a wellbeing approach in addressing homelessness. The board uses wellbeing design principles and the Wellbeing Blueprint to shape policy and re-procurement strategies. By partnering with people with lived experience, the board is co-creating programs and services that are contracted with the regional homelessness authority. The board is also advocating for elected officials and the media to be held accountable for harms inflicted on BIPOC and economically disadvantaged communities who are disproportionately impacted by homelessness.

This is a paradigm shift in our homeless response system. We’re breaking with the status quo of blaming individuals for homelessness and instead orienting our systems toward wellbeing.

- Seattle-King County Continuum of Care board member Tamara Bauman

Seattle-King County is already seeing positive changes as a result of this new approach. Seattle struggled to utilize vouchers to quickly move people from the streets into housing early in the pandemic. Now, the region has some of the best utilization rates in the country. What changed? Seattle housing agencies tried something different by dedicating more staff and funds to help people find housing, as well as simplifying the application and move-in processes for obtaining housing. “This is a testament to our Continuum of Care’s values of centering community and leading with lived experience,” says Bauman.

Seattle-King County is co-creating a homeless response system that is adaptive to the needs of the community’s most vulnerable members – and it all starts with wellbeing.

Are you interested in designing services that center equity and wellbeing? Here are some places to start:

  • Join your Continuum of Care – Find your local Continuum of Care or HUD regional office to learn about opportunities to join the board and advocate for policies that center wellbeing and uplift the voices of people with lived experience.
  • Design for wellbeing – Discover steps you can take and questions you can ask to design wellbeing-oriented services in our resource Designing for a Fair Shot at Wellbeing.
  • Advocate to center community – Utilize the Community Bill of Rights to shift power from funders and systems to community members with lived experience.
  • Direct funding to wellbeing – Implement strategies in the Contracting for Transformation Toolkit to make your procurement process more equitable and wellbeing oriented.

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