Research & Evaluation | ,

Executive Summary: 2022 Learning and Impact Report

Creating a tipping point for ending homelessness in the U.S.
March 28, 2023

Over the last year, two stories about homelessness have been simultaneously unfolding. The first has dominated the public discourse: homelessness is a crisis that demands urgent attention. That story is true, and so is another: communities across the country are demonstrating homelessness is solvable. The task is making this truth the prevailing story of homelessness in the United States.

Through Built for Zero, we work with 105 cities and counties working to make homelessness rare and brief. These communities are reimagining how to approach homelessness, organizing a community-wide team around a shared aim for ending homelessness. They design strategies and target resources guided by the kind of person-centered, real-time information that has fueled other public health victories.

Today, we published a report that includes findings from our evaluation partners ORS and Equal Measure, along with own analysis, on the first of our five-year journey with the MacArthur Foundation’s 100&Change award. By 2026, we aim to have helped cities and counties of all types — big and small, urban and rural — render homelessness rare and brief. These communities will have created a new reality where solving homelessness will be expected rather than exceptional.

We have provided a snapshot of key accomplishments, challenges, and learnings from Year One of our five-year journey with support from the MacArthur Foundation.

This past year, communities demonstrated both the limits and costs of additional resources without the sufficient support and infrastructure to absorb them.

The health and human services workforce has been depleted, with attrition continuing to outpace hiring. Homeless service organizations that were already struggling with inadequate staffing were tasked with absorbing significant new federal Covid-related funding. Despite the opportunity presented by the resources, many communities were not set up with the staffing, support, and processes to effectively allocate and expend the resources to drive lasting and measurable change. This phenomenon highlighted the critical importance of not only having sufficient resources to end homelessness, but having the organized, coordinated, and sufficiently supported systems to deploy them to achieve measurable and equitable reductions in homelessness. 

Despite the challenges that communities face, cities and counties are still driving toward zero.

Our survey found that 90% of Built for Zero communities that responded were “hopeful” to achieve functional zero, the milestone for making homelessness rare and brief. We see not only reason for hope; we see clear progress toward ending homelessness. In 2022, 20 communities achieved a downward shift, which means that a community has made a measurable, meaningful reduction in homelessness and a major improvement in their system. A shift occurs when the number of people experiencing homelessness fall above or below the median over the course of six consecutive months. This downward shift would, with statistical confidence, indicate that the baseline state of the system, or the definition of normal, has changed. 

Large cities were among the communities demonstrating the possibility of progress.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that rates of homelessness continued to rise, particularly in large cities on the West Coast. Against this backdrop, some cities inspired a sense of what is possible. For example, Detroit, the Metro Denver region, and Washington, D.C., reduced veteran homelessness by an average of 27% from 2020-2022, which was significantly higher than the national reduction in veteran homelessness of 11% over the same timeframe.

To date, 64 Built for Zero communities have achieved quality data and know who is experiencing homelessness, by name, in real time.

You can’t solve a problem you can’t see, and communities have historically operated with a blurry snapshot of homelessness. Quality data is more like real-time video. It enables communities to understand who is experiencing homelessness, inflow and outflow, what strategies and investments result in reductions in homelessness, and where improvements are needed. With partners, we are exploring how to make quality data the standard, starting with improving technology and resources for staffing and training.

The global movement is growing and moving toward zero, together.

Community Solutions provides design, strategy, and coaching support to other backbone organizations across the world that help communities measurably end homelessness. These groups include the Australian Alliance to End Homelessness and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, which are driving national campaigns modeled on Built for Zero. Two communities in Canada — London, Ontario, and Medicine Hat, Alberta — have achieved functional zero for a population, and two more are in their “final kilometer” of achieving the milestone. Community Solutions also provides similar advisory and initiative design support to early-stage efforts in the United Kingdom, France, and Denmark. 

Achieving equitable systems is a necessary part of getting to zero homelessness.

Solving homelessness cannot be separated from eliminating the racial inequities within the homeless response system. We worked to ensure that our functional zero definitions for all populations, single adults, youth, or family homelessness requires communities to close all racial and ethnic disproportionality in housing placements, returns to homelessness, and the average length of time experiencing homelessness, from identification to housing placement. As part of this work, communities are also ensuring 1) people of color at all levels of the homeless response system have decision-making power to influence the design of the system and 2) that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color receiving services from the homeless response system have experiences that preserve their dignity and have their needs met in a timely manner.

Improved coordination, repurposed existing properties, and social impact finance can increase access to affordable housing.

Building more affordable housing is critical, particularly in high-cost markets. Communities demonstrated that access could also be accelerated by improving the engagement of private landlords, converting shelter properties into housing, and preserving affordable housing using social impact capital. We found that social impact investors are ready to play their role, committing $126 million to acquire more than 500 units of affordable housing to help end veteran homelessness.

States and municipalities often lack a defined role within the existing homeless response system, and we are working to help change that.

State policymakers, legislators, and agency staffers lack insight into how states can leverage their resources and capacity to play a formal role in solving homelessness. This often leads to unrealized opportunities to influence land-use policy, health care funding (specifically Medicaid), criminal justice policy, and affordable housing finance. Community Solutions is compiling best practices and testing new models of state leadership in ending homelessness. Working with state government partners in Colorado and Maine, we are identifying high-leverage practices and governance models that can be shared with other states. 

The conversation around key solutions to homelessness is growing, but it is still being outpaced by the broader conversation around homelessness.

According to the media monitoring tool Meltwater, the volume of social media conversation about solving homelessness in the United States increased 420% in 2022 from the previous year. Conversations directly related to accountability for a measurable end state to homelessness (functional zero), homelessness as a systems problem, the role of by-name or quality data, the Built for Zero methodology, and the assertion that homelessness is solvable, increased significantly to match about 16% of that solutions-oriented conversation. While this demonstrates progress, we cannot ignore that the volume of conversation focused on the crisis of homelessness continues to vastly outpace the conversation around solutions.

The achievements of communities and partners from Year One are profoundly inspiring. They are also only the beginning. Communities in Built for Zero are primed to continue proving it is possible to make homelessness rare and brief, everywhere. 

This future is not an impossible dream. It is a moral imperative, a different set of choices, and a reality within our collective reach. 

Homelessness is solvable.

We are grateful for every partner that is playing a part in proving it. 

Read more from the 2022 Learning and Impact Report