Homelessness remains one of America’s most complex social issues exacerbated by multiple underlying economic and social factors. In an effort to reduce and prevent homelessness, several foundations have launched initiatives to improve homelessness service systems, tapping Westat to evaluate their implementation and outcomes.
One such program was the 10+ year Family Homelessness Systems Initiative funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Begun in 2010, the Initiative sought to reform service systems and promote best practices for fostering the residential stability of families in 3 counties in Washington State.
“We conducted both formative and outcome evaluations for the Gates Foundation—routinely conveying our findings to the foundation and its grantees throughout the 10 years so they could make midcourse corrections as needed,” says Kathryn Henderson, Ph.D., a Westat Principal Research Associate, who served as project manager of the studies.
“Just recently, we began working with the Hilton Foundation on its 5-year initiative to address chronic and long-term homelessness in Los Angeles County. As the evaluation partner,” she continues, “we will be helping the foundation develop and refine a set of measures to determine how much progress it is making toward contributing to these goals and then collecting data against those measures over time.
“Evaluating these initiatives can be challenging because homelessness is such a dynamic issue with so many factors impacting it,” says Dr. Henderson. “These include availability of affordable housing, the economic climate, amount of funding for interventions, and the nature of public sentiment and political will directed to the problem. In conducting long-term evaluations, we have to think broadly about the factors that may play a role and how the locus of energy within a community may change over time. This requires maintaining frequent contact with key stakeholders and being flexible in our approach.”
Dr. Henderson says she enjoys working with foundations, noting their “freedom to think outside of the box allows for innovative approaches to address a problem.” And while this freedom might lead to new or revised directions, she says, Westat can quickly adapt and respond.
“Our subject matter and methodological expertise and wide range of capabilities allow us to be responsive to their changing requirements,” she continues. “So, if needed, we can rapidly mount web-based surveys, conduct focus groups with diverse populations, including people who don’t speak English, or conduct large-scale field studies. It makes for an exciting and rewarding experience.”
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