Functional Zero

A definition for ending homelessness for a population

Built for Zero uses functional zero to measure whether a community has measurably solved homelessness for a population.

What is functional zero?

Functional zero is a milestone, which must be sustained, that indicates a community has measurably solved homelessness for a population. When it’s achieved, homelessness is rare and brief for that population.

Communities in Built for Zero are confirmed for achieving functional zero using their quality, by-name data, which is updated at least monthly. 

Video: What Is functional zero?

What does functional zero mean?

Every community has a functional zero threshold — the average number of people exiting homelessness in a month.

1. Homelessness is rare and brief.

Every community has a functional zero threshold — the average number of people exiting homelessness in a month. When a community achieves functional zero for a population, it is keeping the number of people experiencing homelessness below this threshold. This means that the number of people experiencing homelessness at any time does not exceed the community’s proven record of housing at least that many people in a month.

This requires systems that are preventing homelessness, quickly detecting homelessness when it occurs, and permanently and promptly resolving those incidents of homelessness.

2. Cities and counties are operating off of a full accounting of homelessness at all times.

They do this by maintaining quality, real-time, comprehensive data on who is experiencing it.

3. The community is working toward equitable systems, starting with a focus on race and ethnicity.

Any system that is not designed to identify and respond to disparities risks perpetuating them. Read more about the indicators communities track.

4. Finally, all of these achievements are sustained over time, even as local conditions change.

Communities reach functional zero once, and they must keep sustaining it. The numbers of people at risk of or experiencing homelessness may rise, due to any number of external factors. Functional zero tracks whether systems can continuously drive those numbers down.

How is functional zero measured for chronic and veteran homelessness?

Communities in Built for Zero focus on achieving functional zero for one population, as a step on the way toward solving homelessness for all populations. A study by the Urban Institute found that this focused approach can accelerate a community’s progress on subsequent populations.

Functional zero for veteran homelessness

Functional zero for veteran homelessness means that fewer veterans are experiencing homelessness than can be routinely housed in a month, with a minimum threshold of 3 veterans.

Functional zero for veteran homelessness means that fewer veterans are experiencing homelessness than can be routinely housed in a month, with a minimum threshold of 3 veterans.

Functional zero for chronic homelessness

The definition for ending chronic homelessness accounts for the long-lasting nature of chronic homelessness, which can be more readily anticipated and prevented. As a result, functional zero for chronic homelessness means there are fewer than 3 people experiencing chronic homelessness at any given time (or .1% of the total number of individuals reported in the most recent point-in-time count, whichever is greater).

Functional zero for chronic homelessness means there are fewer than 3 people experiencing chronic homelessness at any given time (or .1% of the total number of individuals reported in the most recent point-in-time count, whichever is greater).

How does Built for Zero confirm communities are at, and sustaining, functional zero?

Built for Zero confirms whether communities are at functional zero in three steps:

  1. Making sure the community has shared at least six months of complete, quality, reliable data with Built for Zero
  2. Verifying that the community’s data reflects that they meet the functional zero definition
  3. Working with the community team to account for any flags in the community’s data

All communities at functional zero will be reviewed annually to ensure they are sustaining this dynamic end state for ending homelessness. 

Bakersfield/Kern County, California, reached functional zero for chronic homelessness and sustained this progress.
Bakersfield/Kern County, California, reached functional zero for chronic homelessness in January 2020, and they have continued to sustain it. Learn more about how communities track and visualize this data.

Why do we need a definition for solving homelessness?

We use functional zero because communities need a definition for solving homelessness that is clear, measurable, and can be tracked over time. We cannot compromise on the rigor of a definition for ending homelessness, because lives, communities, and the equity of our society is at stake.

Solving homelessness across an entire community is complex. It is virtually impossible if everyone is not clear on the end state they are trying to achieve, and able to objectively measure if they are moving closer to it. Despite this fact, policymakers and practitioners often define an end to homelessness differently, or don’t have a shared definition at all.

Communities need a definition that creates accountability for the reality we want: fewer people experiencing homelessness, equitable outcomes, and for homelessness to be continuously rare and brief. This requires a standard that recognizes that ending homelessness isn’t crossing a finish line, but sustaining a new reality, even as new people experience housing instability.


Nope. Functional zero does not mean nobody is experiencing homelessness, or that no one will experience homelessness. It does mean that a community has driven that number down toward zero, and is keeping it below the community’s capacity to ensure positive exits from homelessness.

Imagine if the homeless system operated like a well-functioning hospital. That hospital will not necessarily prevent people from ever becoming sick. But it will ensure people are triaged appropriately, promptly receive the services they need, and address the illness, preventing further harm.


The federal government and Built for Zero use the same definition for confirming that communities have ended chronic homelessness. The two entities differ on their definitions of ending veteran homelessness. 

The Federal Criteria and Benchmarks for Achieving the Goal of Ending Veteran Homelessness and the functional zero standard for veteran homelessness represent different approaches to measurement, but they are not exclusive.

We believe that achieving the Federal Criteria and Benchmarks and/or Mayor’s Challenge criteria for ending veteran homelessness is an important milestone on the path to reaching functional zero, and a major accomplishment for a community.

The Federal Criteria and Benchmarks are complex and affirm whether a community has met valuable outcomes and system behaviors at the time that it was certified.

Built for Zero’s definition of success, known as functional zero, lays out a standard that allows a community to measure objectively and in real time whether it has ended veteran homelessness and also whether it is sustaining this outcome over time.

To achieve functional zero, a community must have fewer veterans experiencing homelessness than routinely exit homelessness. This measures whether communities have built systems that can achieve and sustain functional zero, even if new veterans experience housing crises over time.


What communities have reached functional zero?

14 communities have achieved functional zero for at least one population


Abilene

Abilene, TX

Ended veteran (Nov. 2018) and chronic homelessness (Jan. 2020)

Bergen County, NJ

Ended veteran (Aug. 2016) and chronic homelessness (April 2017)

Fremont County, Colorado

Fremont County, CO

Ended veteran homelessness (Feb. 2021)

Gulf Coast Region, MS

Ended veteran homelessness (Sep. 2015)

Norman, Oklahoma

Norman, Cleveland County, OK

Ended veteran homelessness (Jan. 2017)

Arlington VA

Arlington County, VA

Ended veteran homelessness (Dec. 2015)

Crater Region, VA

Ended veteran homelessness (Feb. 2021)

Lancaster PA

Lancaster City & County, PA

Ended chronic homelessness (March 2017)

Lake County

Lake County, IL

Ended veteran homelessness (Dec. 2018)

Fast Company

Rockford, Winnebago & Boone Counties, IL

Ended veteran (Dec. 2015) and chronic homelessness (Jan. 2017)

Bakersfield reached functional zero for chronic homelessness

Bakersfield, Kern County, CA

Ended chronic homelessness (March 2020)

Chattanooga

Chattanooga, TN

Ended veteran homelessness (Oct. 2019)

Montgomery County, Maryland

Montgomery County, MD

Ended veteran homelessness (Dec. 2015)

Lynchburg Region, VA

Ended veteran homelessness (Feb. 2020)

All communities at functional zero will be reviewed annually to ensure they are sustaining this dynamic end state for ending homelessness.

Questions?

Reach out to comms@community.solutions.

Help other communities reach functional zero

You can help more communities reach functional zero.

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