Using Data to Rethink Homelessness

It takes a lot of guts to take a good thing, and try to make it better. Back in 2017, El Paso was already on the right track to ending homelessness. They had a nearly complete list of everyone experiencing homelessness in the community. They had partners in the community who reported information, but it wasn’t everyone. With a new year came a new leader, and they decided to tackle the issue of missing data right away.

The solution? Implement a deceptively straightforward, but revolutionary approach through Built for Zero. With the help of this organization and network, the advocates in El Paso started to fill in the missing pieces.

The Built for Zero approach reframes how we think about housing and homelessness. Ending homelessness does not mean preventing people from experiencing homelessness. It means there is a system in place to ensure there are fewer people experiencing homelessness than can be housed in a month.  Generally, this means homelessness is rare overall and brief when it occurs.

This is not as easy as it sounds. It requires convincing everyone in the community to participate in data sharing programs. It takes a lot of preparation.

So I was thinking about how communities could prepare for adopting the Built for Zero approach.  If you’re a social worker, housing advocate, or concerned citizen thinking about people experiencing homelessness, this blog is for you.

What is Built for Zero and how is it different?

communities in the built for zero network
Built for Zero Communities
Image credit: Community Solutions

The way we measure homelessness has historically been incredibly limited. The standard measurement for homelessness comes from a “point in time” (PIT) count. This is an annual, physical count of people living on the streets. It is a direct approach towards sizing the problem.

The Built for Zero model focuses on driving population-level outcomes toward a systemic end to homelessness (specifically the difference between the overall number of people experiencing homelessness and the number of people who can be housed in a month. This makes it easier to define “success” — is the overall number of people experiencing homelessness going down? And is that number remaining below a threshold of how many people can be housed in a month? This is also known as functional zero. This data driven approach enables leaders to understand the nature of homelessness in their community –the number of people experiencing homelessness, and who is entering and exiting that population every month.  

the definition of functional zero from built for zero
Functional Zero definition
Image credit: Community Solutions

This is a major difference. The PIT count looks at homelessness in a single moment. The Built for Zero model focuses on a near real-time process of measuring homelessness and finding housing. It provides a moving picture of the social safety net.

There are twelve communities across the country who have already reached functional zero. For example, Rockford, Illinois ended homelessness for veterans and the chronically homeless. We can use these communities as models to inform local solutions for homelessness across the country.

Built for Zero works with communities to end homelessness in three ways. They improve data collection and quality, they collaborate with people on the ground, and they help improve processes for better service.  Twelve communities in the Built for Zero movement have ended veteran homelessness, chronic homelessness, or both. Forty four additional communities have made a measurable reduction in homelessness following the Built for Zero methods.

The concept of Built for Zero is simple, but implementation requires an entire community to come together.

Why the By-Name List is So Important

By-Name Lists and Functional Zero
Credit: Community Solutions

In order to get started with the Built for Zero network, a community must agree to a measurement framework. This framework includes methods for measuring veteran homelessness and chronic homelessness, measuring reduction of the population experiencing homelessness, and collecting high quality data.They also have to agree to report data to Built for Zero every month.  Everyone in the community working on the problem has to agree with this measurement framework.  

Agreeing to this measurement framework also means everyone is agreeing that success is measured at the system level. Across the community, are there fewer people experiencing homeless this month as compared to last month? The framework allows communities to operationalize and be accountable for a commitment to population level outcomes.  The mindset shift is a game changer.

six key data points from built for zero
Six key data points measured by Built for Zero
Image credit: Community Solutions

This measurement framework begins with a “by-name” list, which is “a comprehensive list of every person in a community experiencing homelessness, updated in real-time. Each person on the list has a file that includes their name, history, health, and housing needs.” This is a big change from the PIT count, and it requires constant coordination between service providers. While every community organization receiving federal funding is required to use a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), that’s not everyone. 

Ideally every week, everyone who contributes to the by-name list meets to review every case in detail, prioritizing the most vulnerable people on the list. This creates a feedback loop between the service providers.

There are a lot of benefits when organizations with similar missions get together in the same room and coordinate with one another. They can work together to figure out who has the best option for each person.  The resources are visible. It helps surface common issues like data reliability and process compliance. 

According to the Built for Zero model, once a community can reliably report the number of people experiencing homelessness for three months, they can start to reduce the homeless population. 

7 Ways to Prepare Your Community for Built for Zero

1. Get people together in the same room

Does your community have a coalition dedicated to serving people experiencing homelessness? In many large cities, there are lots of organizations that address these needs — the Housing Authority, the VA, local nonprofits like food banks and shelters. If there isn’t a working group, start one. Bring everyone together.  

2. Talk about data sharing agreements with your colleagues

In order to prepare to build a by-name list, all of those organizations need to share data. This is a sensitive issue and should be taken very seriously. Even if everyone uses HMIS, you can discuss the minimum number of fields to share on the by-name list, as well as any other data sharing agreements and individual consent forms.

3. Practice focusing on the right metrics

This is important. In the past, service providers have used metrics like the number of people placed into houses, or the total amount of dollars spent. This does not tell us whether we are making progress towards ending homelessness. Instead, we have to measure the number of people experiencing homelessness. Then, we can focus on reducing that number every month, and measuring their path towards housing. Work with your colleagues to begin highlighting these metrics in discussions about measuring homelessness.

4. Build a by-name prototype

What would a by-name list look like, even if it was just your organization’s data? What fields would it contain? Who would need to see it? You can go through the exercise of developing a prototype by-name list without coordinating the entire community.

5. Think about creative, upstream interventions

Even without Built for Zero, there are creative ways to potentially reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness. For example, you can investigate whether your community has an eviction diversion program or rental assistance program. Or look at the link between homelessness and the criminal justice system.

With your complete, real-time, by-Name list you’ll be able to look at the data to learn whether your upstream intervention is effective.  For example, you might find correlations between an eviction diversion program and the number of new people entering the by-name list.

6. Evaluate processes with a critical eye

Implementing Built for Zero will require an overhaul of existing processes. It’s very difficult to make those changes without understanding why the processes exist. Are they required by the government? Are they a stipulation of a funding source? Ultimately, you want to better understand the whole system in order to find areas for big improvements. Look for processes that take hundreds of days– like finding stable, permanent housing– and figure out why they are the way they are.

7. Get a user experience refresh

The Built for Zero model focuses on people experiencing homelessness. Bring them to the table. Ask them how they would redesign the processes. What is their experience like? What would make it easier for them? What are their current barriers? You might not be able to make every process perfect, but you can start identifying areas for improvement.

Learn more about Built for Zero and how you can get involved

Thank you to the following for providing us with insight to write this blog:

Very special thanks to Beth Sandor and Anna Kim of Community Solutions.

Carly Sessions

Carly is a social worker turned technologist who is passionate about using data to improve the social safety net.