In late February, the city of Abilene, Texas, made an announcement: It had ended local veteran homelessness. It was the first community in the state and the ninth in the country to reach that goal, as part of a national program called Built for Zero. Now, through the same program, Abilene is working to end chronic homelessness. While homelessness might often be seen as an intractable problem because of its complexity–or one that costs more to solve than communities can afford–the program is proving that is not the case.
“By ending homelessness, we mean getting to a place where it’s rare, brief, and it gets solved correctly and quickly when it does happen,” says Rosanne Haggerty, president of Community Solutions, the nonprofit that leads the Built for Zero program. “That’s a completely achievable end state, we now see.” The nonprofit, which calls this goal “functional zero,” announced today that it is accelerating its work in 50 communities.
One key to the process is data, and a visual dashboard that lets agencies track people experiencing homelessness in real time. In Abilene, with a population a little more than 120,000, for example, the city located every homeless veteran, gathered information about each individual situation, and stored this information in a “by-name list” that was continually updated. “It basically just forced us to continuously look to change improvements to our system, and how to use real-time data to improve our performance,” says John Meier, the program manager for supportive services for veteran families for the West Central Texas Regional Foundation. “We’ve always had lots of data sitting around, but haven’t had it in one place and [haven’t been] utilizing it to our advantage.” Every agency in the city began working together and meeting to discuss how to get each veteran–21 people, as of February 2018–into housing. While watching the data, they could test interventions like working with local landlords and the public housing agency to prioritize people on the list. The average amount of time to house a veteran shrank from more than 40 days to 26. By November 2018, 10 months after joining the Built for Zero program, Abilene had reached the goal of “functional zero” for veteran homelessness. (It made the announcement in February in part because it was waiting for federal confirmation, which was delayed by the government shutdown.)
Community Solutions had previously worked with 186 cities in a campaign that got more than 100,000 homeless people into housing in less than four years. But it wanted to go further. “We got to a point where we helped communities house a lot more people and get better at housing people,” Haggerty says. “But we still didn’t see them ending homelessness, and that’s where Built for Zero came in. It really is a very radical idea that without real-time, person-specific information, communities just can’t pool everything they’ve got together and be accountable at solving the problem.”
The nonprofit partnered with the Tableau Foundation, a philanthropic arm of Tableau Software, to use the company’s data visualization tools. Being able to easily track the data helped communities in the program shift “from incremental improvement to transformational results,” Haggerty says. Tableau saw parallels to the work that it had done in Zambia to help the country track its work to eliminate malaria; before using a data visualization tool, the government there had struggled to see who was contracting malaria and how they were being treated. In planning meetings, the government had been using outdated data from the previous year. As in American cities tackling homelessness through multiple agencies, Zambia wasn’t seeing a systems-level view of the situation and couldn’t respond strategically. After it started working with real-time dashboards, it was able to reduce malaria deaths by more than 90%, and reduce malaria cases by more than 80%.
The company saw the potential for similar transformation of work on homelessness. “For decades, homelessness organizations would collect data, and they would send it to HUD,” says Neal Myrick, global head of the Tableau Foundation. “Once a year, HUD would produce a massive report that nobody was really reading. And the information wasn’t really usable to the people who needed it on the ground to make active decisions about what to do day-to-day to better solve the problem.”
Communities in the program use a coordinated approach. Bergen County, New Jersey, with a population of nearly 1 million, was the first in the country to end chronic homelessness, reaching the goal in 2017. (Six months earlier, it had also ended veteran homelessness.) The county created a “command center” that brought together various organizations working on homelessness, and then began using real-time data about each person experiencing homelessness so that everyone could work together to get them housed. Like many places, Bergen County also committed to a “housing first” approach, meaning that people move into permanent housing as a first step before also getting help with finding a job, mental healthcare, or other issues. The data revealed trends, like the fact that their population of those who were chronically homeless–homeless for more than a year–was growing because people were sitting on a waiting list for so long that they were passing the one-year threshold. The county was able to begin prioritizing those who were close the one-year mark to get them into housing faster; now, no one has “aged in” to chronic homelessness for months.
Some advocates for people experiencing homelessness are concerned about this type of data-gathering and the risk that data could be misused by law enforcement. In communities using the Built for Zero system, law enforcement may be part of a local team working on the problem, but typically doesn’t have access to the data. Community Solutions says that there haven’t been any cases of law enforcement trying to seize the data or use it inappropriately.
Continuing to use real-time data helps the county identify new problems that are emerging; right now, for example, they’re seeing an uptick in both young people and seniors who are homeless. “The data is so important because by the time you know it’s a problem, it’s too late,” says Julia Orlando, director of the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Service Center. “So if you can start seeing trends before it’s a really bad problem, you can start adjusting your policies or trying to get additional services in your facility to try to address that.” For example, they can now start planning to add skilled nursing care to their shelter and searching for different types of grants to support eldercare.
The county had the resources to achieve the “functional zero” goal, Orlando says. But the focus of the program and its use of data helped it actually accomplish it. While cities and organizations working on the problem of homelessness often point to a lack of resources, it may be the case in many communities that the right resources exist–or can be mobilized–with a more strategic approach. “Once communities can actually see what’s going on, they can make informed decisions about where to put resources and where new resources are needed,” says Haggerty. In Montgomery County, Maryland, the government used specific data to say exactly how much money it needed to end veteran homelessness, and that helped get it the funding to reach the goal.
The next opportunity for cities or counties to join the program and get training will happen in October. The challenges may be largest in cities like New York or San Francisco or Seattle–none of which are yet part of the program–where homeless populations are very high, in part because of expensive housing markets. But that’s not to say that ending chronic and veteran homelessness is impossible in those cities. Resources are not necessarily the only issue; homelessness is increasing in New York City even as it spends more than $2 billion a year on homelessness programs. One issue is bringing together all of the organizations in a community that need to collaborate and commit to a “functional zero” goal, Haggerty says.
Some cities do have related programs. San Francisco, for example, also has a platform that tracks individuals to help connect them to housing more quickly. Built for Zero goes further, however, because it serves as an analytics platform that helps communities better understand the whole picture so that they can spot and solve issues at a systems level.
“We are doing a lot of thinking about how do we change norms so that the expectations shift so that more and more people understand that this is a solvable problem, and just kind of sitting it out and just complaining about resources or the other guy is just not going to be acceptable anymore,” she says. “We find ourselves thinking a lot these days about marriage equality, smoking, drunk driving–some of these movements in our recent lifetime where an issue went from ‘What’s to be done,’ to ‘We are going to commit ourselves to a different set of behaviors now. We’re going to own different norms.’ And I think that needs to happen on homelessness.”
To date, nine communities have reached the goal of “functional zero” for veteran homelessness, and three communities have reached the goal for chronic homelessness. Another 39 have made measurable progress toward those goals by gathering meaningful data. The Tableau Foundation is now committing more than $1.3 million in software, services, and funding to help 50 communities that are currently involved in the program to accelerate their progress, with the aim to help 13 achieve functional zero goals by the end of the year. “We thought by focusing on the 50 cities it would become a tipping point, where the discussion around whether or not homelessness could be solved really was put to rest,” says Myrick. “It becomes more about, how are we going to solve it? With limited resources for everything, we think it’s really important to just start solving the problems that can be solved.”