Community, Commitment, Change: Reflections on WYFF’s 20th Anniversary

Published: April 29, 2024

Driving along Interstate 82, visitors to this fertile river valley are presented with a promise: Welcome to Yakima, The Palm Springs of Washington. A billboard sign erected in 1987 promises visitors sunshine and an idyllic recreational experience. Nearly four decades later, the sign still stands. Regional debate continues about whether the sign is aspirational or a vestige of ambition long abandoned.

Visitor welcome sign that reads, "Welcome to Yakima The Palm Springs of Washington".

Visitor welcome sign in Yakima, Washington

As we mark the 20th anniversary of the Washington Youth & Families Fund (WYFF), I have been reflecting on timelines that we as a community have set for ourselves to address homelessness in our state. Whether it is forming a committee, a 10-year plan, or a 20-year ordinance with a sunset clause, homelessness seems to continue beyond the point where we thought the issue would persist. We have made time-bound goals that keep passing by. However, along the way, we have learned so much more about the issue and how to address its complexity and chaos best.

Twenty years ago, in the marbled halls of Olympia, our state legislature created the Washington Families Fund to help families get the “housing-based supportive services” they need to break the cycle of homelessness. Building Changes has seen the evolution of the fund, and we have brought public and private partners together to move the needle on homelessness and provide housing services for thousands of families and youth.

To date, WYFF has provided grants to 122 providers in 26 counties, including two Indigenous nations. Through its programs, we have learned how to deliver homeless and housing services to be more human-centered, culturally tailored, and trauma-informed. With our partnerships throughout the state, we have helped to move the goalpost of ending homelessness so that more queer, Black, Indigenous, and brown folk are being served. We live into our values of equity, people, partnerships, and integrity in our work, including WYFF, so that more youth and families can access services and are better supported for long-term stability in their housing.

Today, in 2024, the issue of homelessness only seems to grow. I am not here to say that we have a fast plan to end homelessness in the next decade or even the next two. I have to be honest with you, and that means acknowledging that our current policies and public funding are insufficient to meet any rapid timeline.

While I won’t lie about the gravity of what lies ahead, I have some inspiration. Every day, I see partners in Asotin and Whatcom counties doing what it takes to end homelessness in our lifetime. I see our Indigenous nations in Cowlitz, Samish, and Yakama proving sovereignty and resources leading to healthier outcomes. I am proud to work hand in hand with the many committed organizations working to end homelessness across the state. A recent landscape scan shows that our collective efforts have reduced the number of unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness by 40% in Washington. Our work also proves that we can achieve housing success for Black and brown families at the same or better rates than their white peers. Building Changes hopes to continue to challenge mindsets about the status quo of homelessness services and build a stronger movement day by day, year by year—and yes—decade by decade.

Time doesn’t serve our arbitrary deadlines to accomplish monumental feats. Ending homelessness is monumental. It requires that we address poverty, racism, education, workforce development, incarceration, and child welfare, to name a few complex issue areas. Yet time has the power to turn a vision into an enduring commitment, which is what I hope WYFF can do.

We all still have so much work to do in the next era of the Washington Youth & Families Fund. There are still 13 more counties that have not received WYFF dollars yet, and the 26 counties we have funded still need continued support to advance the ever-changing landscape of homelessness in their communities. One family and young person at a time, we will find a path to end homelessness together through our collective partnership between community, government, and philanthropy.

And on that day, I hope you can join me for a celebratory glass under the sunshine of the soon-to-be undisputed Palm Springs of Washington.

To learn more about how WYFF has a made a difference in communities, see Years of Progress: The Washington Youth & Families Fund in Yakima County.

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