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This article originally appeared in Chandler Foundation’s Social Investor magazine, the only peer-to-peer publication serving social innovators and leaders in global philanthropy. It was originally published under the title "Harnessing the Power of Data and Systems to End Homelessness, For Good.”
After 10 years of living in a tent, William finally had a home.
During that time, organizations in Fremont County, Colorado, had each tried to help William, but in November 2019, they changed their approach. They formed a single, community wide team and joined Built for Zero, a national movement that aims to make homelessness rare overall and brief if it occurs. Fremont County made ending homelessness among war veterans like William its first priority on the way to ending all homelessness, a measure called “functional zero.” This means a community has the system in place to prevent most homelessness, swiftly identify new housing emergencies, and rapidly reconnect those in housing crises with a stable home.
What this meant for William was that when a rental subsidy voucher became available, the local team was ready. From securing an apartment, to completing a myriad of required forms, to helping William manage the transition to living inside, the collaboration stretched across the county, to state agencies, and to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. By February 2021, Fremont County had reached “functional zero” veteran homelessness, meaning that not only William but all veterans in housing crises, present, and future, would be spared the experience of being trapped in homelessness.
A Movement to Measurably and Equitably End Homelessness
Fremont County is one of 105 counties and regions participating in Built for Zero. Guided by Community Solutions, Built for Zero helps communities develop data-driven systems to reach functional zero homelessness. This state of equilibrium can be likened to the end of epidemics, where cases are low and systems are in place to quickly detect and respond to new cases. Fremont County is one of 14 communities that have reached functional zero chronic and/or veteran homelessness. Forty-two others are achieving measurable reductions.
Built for Zero was the byproduct of challenging our own theory of change for ending homelessness. Decades ago, we started this work by building thousands of units of affordable and supportive housing. While our buildings ended the homelessness of those who moved in, homelessness itself continued to increase in our city and throughout the country. We saw that single organizations and strong programs alone could not end homelessness. What was needed was a way of harnessing all of a community’s efforts and resources toward a single goal.
Our first attempt to organize communities toward a single aim was the 100,000 Homes campaign, (2009 to 2014), a national effort to house 100,000 chronically homeless and medically fragile people within four years. In total, 186 communities participated and together housed more than 105,000 of the most vulnerable Americans. Yet despite this tremendous achievement, no community came close to ending homelessness.
Built for Zero began with that question: What would it take to reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness to zero, and to work backward from that ultimate goal? Over the last seven years, we have learned what is required: a data-driven operating system that can knit together community teams, activities, and housing investments to ensure they are adding up to reductions in homelessness.
Just like other dynamic, complex global health challenges, progress in reducing homelessness relies on a collective approach that works toward shifting the systems that hold the problem of homelessness in place. Communities in Built for Zero begin by establishing the shared aim of reaching functional zero among all the key government and nonprofit agencies involved in homelessness. They agree to measure success by the extent to which they are reducing homelessness at the population level, rather than by the performance of individual programs.
At the heart of these efforts are comprehensive, real-time, person-specific data. Homelessness is a dynamic issue that changes every night, and housing solutions — similar to medical interventions — need to be tailored to the person. However, communities have relied on inadequate, static information, such as aggregate, anonymous, annual counts of homelessness to tell them whether their policies are working and to drive strategies and investments. They have been flying blind.
There are real people behind the numbers. Communities in Built for Zero know each person’s name and the names of their family members, and they track their needs in real time, by triaging and targeting the right supports for each individual. Since they have a complete picture of how homelessness itself is shifting, and the critical dynamics of inflow and outflow, they can detect and correct causal factors and logjams. In addition, they can identify whether the overall number of people experiencing homelessness is changing in response to new practices.
This dynamic understanding of the problem enables strategic, data-driven housing investments. Often, housing investments are not strategic because they are disconnected from a community’s homeless response system. With a real-time understanding of the dynamics of homelessness, local teams can target housing investments to achieve the greatest possible reductions.
Driving This Movement to a Tipping Point
When we applied to the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change competition in 2020, we had a strong sense of the essential features of local housing systems designed to drive reductions in homelessness. But, as we applied for the award, we were faced with a new question: How would we scale and accelerate these results across the country? And what underlying conditions would have to change so that any community could make this kind of progress, with or without our direct support?
In April 2021, we were named the recipient of the award for the US$100 million grant over five years. We proposed to help at least 50 communities of every size and type end homelessness for at least one population, including helping five to reach “zero for all” and eliminate homelessness altogether. These diverse proof points will enable any community to see itself in this new story of homelessness as an urgent and solvable public health and racial equity challenge.
The 100&Change award provides the scale of investment needed to measurably solve a critical problem of our time, while providing the flexibility to enable us and our community partners to test and pivot strategies as dynamically as homelessness evolves. The MacArthur Foundation joined a core group of partners that had propelled our work to this point, thanks to the same model of catalytic, multiyear, flexible investments. This group includes Ballmer Group, The Home Depot Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, Rocket Mortgage, and the Tableau Foundation.
This significant influx of philanthropic capital has enabled us to make key investments that clear the path of the common barriers to reducing homelessness. Our newly launched policy team is translating the learning from our communities into a pragmatic policy reform agenda. A priority is modernizing data standards so that communities have the information they need to drive reductions in homelessness, and the enabling technology to enable essential, privacy-protected communication between organizations that must collaborate.
At the same time, we have dedicated nearly half of the award to direct investments in communities. We are supporting critical system improvement staff and helping communities address last-mile challenges to getting to zero. In addition, we have established an acquisition fund to help large communities secure existing affordable housing and hotel properties to accelerate housing placements.
By every meaningful measure, homelessness is a problem that is more costly to ignore than to fix. Built for Zero communities have demonstrated that homelessness is solvable. It’s time that this be the expectation and practice everywhere.