The COVID-19 pandemic has increased the need for more permanent local solutions to homelessness, a problem made more urgent by the Supreme Court’s recent decision to end the eviction moratorium. Seizing this unique moment to explore innovative county-specific strategies and approaches, NACo convened a panel of experts who are working to end homelessness and proving that it is possible. The recording from that panel is available here.
“What we need to do locally and as a country is wrestle with the fact that it’s not simply about housing supply. It’s not simply about money. It’s about getting the right operating system in place to drive progress on this issue,” said Rosanne Haggerty, President and CEO of Community Solutions. “Is all our work adding up to what we want, which is equitable reductions in homelessness?”
The 14 communities that have succeeded in achieving functional zero, a measure of solving homelessness for a population, share three necessary "system features" designed to drive and sustain reductions in homelessness.
1. A Unified Accountable, Community-Wide Team
One of the key challenges to ending homelessness is the decentralized nature of a community’s response. In any community, dozens or even hundreds of organizations may serve people experiencing homelessness, each defining success by their own program measures.
Communities must begin by breaking down these silos to establish a unified team that creates shared accountability across these efforts. In Bergen County, N.J. these teams are physically located in the same building and work together weekly to examine how they can connect people to permanent housing. They see the system as a whole and collectively remove barriers that are impacting the whole population of people experiencing homelessness.
“What Community Solutions brings to the table is the sense of urgency and the importance of collaboration,” said Julia Orlando, Director, Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center and a member of the Built for Zero movement. “Collaboration doesn’t mean you always agree, but it does mean that you bring all your resources to bear on the issue.”
In Bergen County, this local command center is supported by policymakers, like county executive James Tedesco.
“Political will is the reason why we have the services we have to get to functional zero and stay at functional zero,” Orlando said. “We have relied on the commitment of our political officials and our business leaders to sustain and prioritize the work.”
2. A Shared Aim and Definition of Success
A fragmented system often means that no one has authority over or accountability for whether all those efforts and investments are adding up to overall reductions in homelessness over time — or whether those outcomes are equitable. This unified team should be grounded by a shared aim and operating definition of how they would know that they were making progress toward that goal.
Communities start by setting a goal to measurably end homelessness for a population, like veterans or people experiencing chronic homelessness. Progress is measured by whether the number of people experiencing homelessness is going down, month over month, toward zero. The community knows it has reached its aim when it achieves functional zero, or fewer people are experiencing homelessness than can be routinely housed. This indicates not only that homelessness is rare across a population, but that resilient systems are in place to continuously reduce and end it.
As communities sustain functional zero for a population, they expand their efforts to other populations, working toward systems that end homelessness for all. For example, in August of 2016, Bergen County became the first community in the United States to end chronic homelessness. Six months later, the county reached functional zero for veteran homelessness.
Communities in Built for Zero are using a measurement framework to understand and improve the racial equity of a community’s homeless response system as it works toward getting to functional zero. The homeless response system — like any other system — must be explicitly set up to identify and respond to racial disparities if it is to avoid maintaining or even deepening them.
3. A Feedback Loop Based on Quality, Real-Time Data
A shift toward using data for improvement requires a more rapid, reliable and actionable feedback loop to understand the nature and scale of homelessness at any given time. Communities in Built for Zero have quality, by-name data, which means that they deeply understand homelessness in their community in real time. This includes:
- Every person experiencing homelessness at any given time, by name and individual need.
- The total number of people experiencing homelessness, including sheltered and unsheltered populations.
- The systems dynamics behind those numbers, like how many people entered or exited from homelessness that month, and how many people returned from housing.
- The racial equity of a system, like system decision-making power, the experiences of those being served by the system and disparities in systems outcomes, like length of time or rates of exit to permanent housing.
“Communities need a profoundly different understanding of what they need to have in place to get ahead of and continually solve a public health and racial equity challenge,” said Haggerty. “Fluid data — dynamic data — is what is breaking open a new understanding and practice of responding to homelessness in Built for Zero communities.”
To better serve individuals, this data is used by agencies and organizations to connect people with the appropriate support and resources. At the population level, this data enables the community to understand whether investments and efforts are truly adding up to reductions in homelessness.
Communities can strategize, test and evaluate changes to their system — whether that requires looking upstream at other systems that are contributing to people entering homelessness, or targeting barriers that exist for people working to exit homelessness. This data is also critical for equipping decision-makers with the information they need to advocate for and target resources to drive the greatest possible reductions.
“We knew we had to adjust to changes we saw in the numbers,” said Thomas Jacobs, Community Care Liaison & Care Coordinator, Veterans Bridge Home, Charlotte, N.C. and a member of the Charlotte/Mecklenburg County Built for Zero team. “We knew we had to change as the data in our market changed. We were able to try out new techniques as the data offered new options. We didn’t get paralyzed by the data or stuck in our ways. We were able to continue testing new ideas.”
Moving to Systems Designed to Get to Zero
Without deep systems change dedicated to getting to zero, counties will have a tough time designing systems that could achieve or sustain population-level reductions.
Through their influence, investments and convening power, county leaders have a powerful role to play. This includes balancing the immediate actions that produce short-term gains with the deep systems change necessary to equitably and sustainably solve homelessness. To that end, Community Solutions recommends that leaders ask the following questions in any conversation around ending homelessness:
- Are we all aligned behind a commitment to population-level reductions in homelessness as the critical measure of our success?
- Is the community currently driving population-level reductions in homelessness?
- How will this effort, investment or intervention help communities drive population-level reductions in homelessness — and how would we know?
- Is real-time, by-name data informing these decisions, and where is that data coming from?
We know homelessness is solvable because counties like Bergen County, N.J. and Charlotte/Mecklenburg County, N.C. are proving it every day. Together, we must work to help communities establish resilient, equitable and data-driven systems that will ensure this becomes the norm, rather than the exception.
Rosanne Haggerty is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Community Solutions. Community Solutions is a nonprofit that leads Built for Zero, a movement of more than 80 cities and counties using data to radically change how they work and the impact they can achieve — and proving that it is possible to make homelessness rare and brief.