Data makes a difference: Social Work alum tackles homelessness

front entrance and garden of homeward alliance at the murphy center in fort collins, colorado

It’s a beautiful building you’d never guess is a homeless shelter. The earth-colored exterior blends with Colorado landscapes, like many newer workplaces. The entrance is framed with mountain-style timbers and a charming corrugated awning. Along the walkway to the door, there is a garden with a handwritten sign at the gate: “Everyone is welcome.”

Yet the dignity imparted by these features is regularly misconstrued as much too welcoming. It’s the biggest myth challenging social workers and others who dedicate their careers to serving homeless populations: If you build it, they will come.

“The biggest misperception of homelessness in our community is that services are the reason for homelessness. We have tons of data showing that is not the case,” said David Rout (M.S.W., ’13). “People are coming here for job opportunities, housing, family, and friends.”

the homeward alliance career closet has job related outfits for folks to choose from
“We’re always looking to fill gaps—identifying them and researching best practices, collecting data, and analyzing reports. It’s become such a part of what we do,” said Rout.

As director of Homeward Alliance in Fort Collins, Rout understands the dynamics of homelessness in Northern Colorado better than anyone. “People who are homeless are in search of opportunity,” he said. “Opportunity is more elusive for the people we are serving.”

Under Rout’s leadership, Homeward Alliance took a definitive step towards increasing opportunities for individuals and families experiencing homelessness in Fort Collins this year. The nonprofit received $18,000 via United Way of Larimer County’s Innovation Grant program to support a new database that provides valuable insight into the local homeless population.

“They have a leadership team focused on community-level impact,” said Rout. “It was really a perfect partnership for United Way of Larimer County and Homeward Alliance. They gave us that kick-start, and it started a lot of movement for our community and agency. I am grateful they saw what we saw.”

In 2019, this customized database system allowed the nonprofit to collect and integrate information across all of its programs for the first time in its history. The system also enabled partnerships across the Northern Colorado region. It has been a game changer for Rout and his team.

Using data to see homelessness

Homeward Alliance operates a family of nine programs, including the Murphy Center—that welcoming building—which functions as a hub of services for people who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless in Larimer County.

“There are a lot of misperceptions about why people become impoverished,” said Rout. “Every time we work with someone, typically there are multiple system failures that have led them to our door.”

“We are currently the largest service provider for people who are homeless in Larimer County,” Rout said of Homeward Alliance. “There’s a massive need if you look at the data.”

bread in a box at the homeward alliance food pantry
The gap between rich and poor in the United States grew last year to its highest level in more than 50 years of tracking income inequality, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures released in September 2019.

In 2017, a report by government-backed mortgage lender Freddie Mac found that the amount of housing in Colorado that was affordable to people making less than half of the median income had plunged by more than 75% between 2010 and 2016, one of the biggest decreases in the country.

To address the lack of affordable housing at a regional level, United Way of Larimer County, Homeward Alliance and other housing and social service partners from Weld and Larimer counties are coming together to form a Northern Colorado Continuum of Care (CoC) with support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

HUD provides funds for serving homeless populations to CoCs that apply as a group of collaborative agencies in a local area. The new Homeward Alliance database system is critical to implementing a CoC specific to Northern Colorado.

“For HUD, it’s a set of requirements in terms of data points you have to collect as a community. Continuums can be regions, cities, entire states, but there is always a governing body that oversees the continuum,” Rout said. “It’s usually a location.”

Continuums of Care exist in Denver and Colorado Springs, but currently Northern Colorado competes with the rest of the state for funds. It’s been up to the collaboration of agencies in this area, including Homeward Alliance and United Way of Larimer County, to demonstrate both needs and solutions to HUD.

Contrary to the myth that services for the homeless create the problem of homelessness, the 2019 data for Fort Collins shows most people either escape homelessness within six months or move out of the local area. “We serve roughly 3,000 people a year here, and only 20 percent of them will experience long-term homelessness,” said Rout.

The data also shows people access services across multiple agencies and programs, for example, to find health care, get children enrolled in school, or obtain copies of identification documents. “That’s why we have so many agencies and why it’s crucial this building operates to make sure everyone who needs services are connected to them,” Rout said.

A career in nonprofit leadership

david rout
“It takes a long time,” said Homeward Alliance Director David Rout (M.S.W., ’13), “but I’ve seen system-level change happen, and that’s where my passion comes from—this cumulative effect of the work we’ve done as a community in the last 10 years, and I am able to look back and see where we are today.” Photo courtesy of David Rout

Meeting David Rout for the first time, and experiencing the lively, focused, and productive atmosphere of Homeward Alliance and the Murphy Center, it’s surprising to learn he did not start out in social work or plan his career around addressing the issue of homelessness.

Rout worked as a journalist for several years after graduating from college. He got involved in social work through volunteering at the Sexual Assault Victim Advocates (SAVA) Center in Fort Collins, helping with the crisis hotline.

“I was exposed like I had never been exposed before to the poverty and the struggles people face every day in this community,” said Rout. After a year of volunteering, Rout enrolled in the MSW program at Colorado State University.

“[After] being exposed to the fact that Fort Collins is a community with challenges, I felt I would like my life more if I was helping, instead of doing what I was doing at the time,” Rout said. “So I decided to go back to school.”

CSU’s Master of Social Work program focuses on advanced generalist practice. The nationally recognized MSW program is designed to equip students with a broad range of skills for professional and ethical social work practice at all levels.

“In 2012, I did an internship with what is now our Hand Up program [within Homeward Alliance]. That was my first field placement. As soon as I finished with Hand Up, I started working with Homeless Gear in my next field placement.”

Homeless Gear was founded by a local volunteer, Ken John, with the mission of collecting and distributing supplies to help people survive homelessness. It would later become Homeward Alliance after Rout was hired to serve as director of the nonprofit. “We planned the transition during the second year of my MSW,” Rout said.

“Ken set a concept of going out into the community and looking at the research and data, trying to identify gaps.” said Rout. “We were very efficient in bringing in money and not spending all of it, which gave us a cushion to make it possible to grow in the beginning.”

Homeless Gear did grow. It formed partnerships with other agencies serving homeless populations and eventually adopted the name Homeward Alliance. “We have grown massively. We had an $80,000 budget my first year, and we’re at about $1.6 million now,” said Rout, who started as director in 2014.

“What was so good about Ken’s vision is it was doing a true gaps analysis assessment of the existing resources in the state and community,” Rout said, “then looking at what other communities have done to fill that gap, and going out and creating a program that fits into the system.”

“That instilled the general philosophy we have on things, and it’s why we’ve grown in ways other agencies haven’t,” said Rout. “We’re always looking to fill gaps—identifying them and researching best practices, collecting data, and analyzing reports. It’s become such a part of what we do.”

Future data initiatives

So far in 2019, the Homeward Alliance data shows 75 housing successes and 51 jobs secured. But what about the 20 percent of people who do not find housing within six months? “For those people who experience long-term homelessness, the causes are very different and the interventions look very different,” said Rout.

“Right now we have about 430 people who we know have been homeless in Fort Collins for more than six months,” Rout said. “The vast majority of these individuals report physical disabilities, mental health issues, or substance abuse disorders. In many cases, it’s all three.”

The success of the new database funded by the United Way of Larimer County Innovation Grant is now leading to the expectation for Northern Colorado to form its own Continuum of Care in 2020. At that point, administration of the system will become self-sustaining via funding from HUD.

When this transition occurs, Homeward Alliance is positioned to serve as the data lead for the region. “We can provide complex data analysis,” said Rout, “but we can also provide more seamless access to services. Our case managers communicate more efficiently and share information across programs.”

The shift promises to bring more resources, solutions, and local leadership to Northern Colorado on the issue of homelessness. Homeward Alliance has already provided data for two community-level reports distributed to City Council and other key stakeholders in the region.

homeward alliance van
Homeward Alliance received $18,000 via United Way of Larimer County’s Innovation Grant program to support a new database that provides valuable insight into the local homeless population. So far in 2019, the Homeward Alliance data shows 75 housing successes and 51 jobs secured.

One of the reports on long-term homelessness in Fort Collins showed both progress and a continuing need. About 140 people escaped long-term homelessness in Fort Collins from 2017 to 2019, but more people continue to enter chronic homelessness than escape it.

“These people cycle across costly community systems — hospitals, jails, and shelters — and they do so because we do not have enough housing or supportive services,” said Rout. “Those are the two primary things we are trying to address in our community.”

Homeward Alliance has also begun working on a separate initiative called FUSE, which stands for Frequent Utilizer Systems Engagement. The FUSE program was launched in collaboration with Homeward 2020 and the Health District of Northern Larimer County. It employs a data sharing tool for the community systems used by people who experience chronic homelessness.

“We received a grant from the state of Colorado that we would have not received without this data system,” said Rout. “We hired a clinical case manager with a licensure, and have 20 housing vouchers which will go to the 20 people who were in our first part of the program.”

“We have signed agreements with agencies that form a supportive services team,” Rout said. “It’s everything from physical, mental health, outreach, case management—whoever can provide supportive services depending on the person’s needs has signed an agreement to be a part of this team.”

“Our clinical case manager is responsible for coordinating the services,” he added. “We’re within the Continuum of Care. This is a detailed program designed to serve people in Fort Collins specifically and will serve 20 people. It’s something we would not have gotten without the data system.”

The success of Homeward Alliance seems to be something Fort Collins would not have gotten without Rout, but of course this natural collaborator and big-picture thinker sees things differently.

“I’m inspired by the leaders in our community,” Rout said. “I’ve seen growth in younger leadership in this community and in the nonprofit world in the last few years that crosses many demographic lines.”

“They’re focused on data and professionalism, and driven by outcomes for nonprofit services, which is something I take seriously. There’s a misperception that what we do is just give out free stuff to people,” said Rout. “What we’re actually trying to do is solve some of the most complex system challenges we have in our world.”

The School of Social Work is a part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.

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