By 2026, key data, governance, and accountability challenges will have been solved, creating the conditions for any community to end homelessness. Across the country, communities will have comprehensive, real-time, person-specific data that enables them to accelerate housing placements, make targeted system improvements, and drive reductions in overall homelessness.
Communities have made significant progress in developing the data infrastructure they need to reduce and end homelessness. A critical step toward reaching functional zero for any community is establishing high-quality data systems that account for everyone experiencing homelessness by name and need, in real-time. Other fields, like public health, have situated quality, real-time data at the heart of their efforts to understand and bend the curve on crises, like epidemics. Since communities cannot solve a problem they cannot fully see, they must be able to account for all unhoused individuals living within their community. Communities must also understand how many people are experiencing homelessness on at least a monthly basis and how the pattern is moving and changing over time. Seeing the dynamics of inflow and outflow enables communities to understand where to intervene to reduce and end homelessness.
Sixty four communities have achieved the quality, by-name data milestone for one or more populations. Boulder County, Colorado, was one of the communities that achieved quality data for a population in 2022.
“To achieve quality data for veterans means that we know who’s in our community,” said Heidi Grove, who is the Homeless Solutions for Boulder County Systems Manager. “We identify our veterans person-by-person and strategize the most appropriate exit and resources for them to end homelessness.”
Communities in Built for Zero must take a scorecard assessment to understand whether they have achieved quality data. Together the four aspects assessed by the scorecard — outreach, provider participation, policies/procedures, and data infrastructure — indicate the degree to which a community is collecting high-quality data and following practices that ensure efforts to reduce homelessness are coordinated, effective, and sustainable. External evaluators recently conducted an analysis of the progress of 65 Built for Zero communities over time using the scorecard data. In 2022, 62% of communities updated their scores, with 37% improving all four dimensions of quality data. Community Solutions also conducted a review of the evidence that indicates that the behavior, policy, or process has changed.
A high-quality data infrastructure allows communities to track the status and needs of individuals as well as population-level inflow and outflow dynamics from homelessness to track progress toward functional zero on at least a monthly basis.
Communities are forging the partnerships needed to ensure their data reflects all those currently experiencing homelessness in the community, including those experiencing unsheltered homelessness. Participation among all community providers is critical to ensuring a community’s data provides a full accounting of individuals currently experiencing homelessness. As of 2022, 48 out of 65 Built for Zero communities (74%) included in a recent analysis have at least 90% of local providers contributing to the community’s by-name data. This represents a 53 percentage point increase from when communities took their initial scorecard assessments, signaling that significantly more providers across communities are participating in a collective homelessness response system accountable for quality data collection, reporting, and results.
Communities are using their data to connect people with housing and needed support and accelerating their efforts to achieve functional zero. Several communities reported they also use by-name data to prioritize and customize services for individuals. They shared that they use the population-level data to identify system gaps and opportunities, measure progress, and hold partnerships accountable to their shared aim of reducing homelessness toward functional zero. Communities are also using aggregated data to advocate for solutions with policymakers, funders, and the general public.
Challenges and Learning
Organizations working to end homelessness overwhelmingly depend on technology systems that do not provide the functionality or the comprehensive data they need. Communities rely on a tool called a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), which is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The tool effectively measures programmatic compliance for federally funded programs, but fails to provide the comprehensive, updated, person-level data needed to connect individuals with housing and equitably reduce homelessness. As a result, communities must engage in elaborate workarounds in order to understand how many people are experiencing homelessness on a monthly basis and the inflow-outflow dynamics, whether the number of people experiencing homelessness is increasing or decreasing month over month, and what interventions and policies are leading to reductions in overall homelessness.
Furthermore, Continuums of Care and actors in adjacent sectors like health care have raised the challenges of facilitating collaboration, shared accountability, and supporting collective problem-solving to drive reductions in homelessness when systems do not enable data interoperability, or the ability to share appropriately protected data.
In response, Community Solutions has brought together national and local partners and federal government staff to:
- Work with Continuums of Care and Homeless Management Information System software vendors to better align system architecture to enable communities to have comprehensive, person-centric data
- Ensure Homeless Management Information System software systems provide Continuums of Care with the ability to generate the reports needed to support day-to-day system operations without incurring additional fees
- Request additional investments to:
- Support Continuums of Care in obtaining sufficient software licenses to allow for wider access to and use by local leaders
- Increase human and technical capacity for collecting and using comprehensive, person-centric data
- Create dynamic reports necessary for understanding who is experiencing homelessness, why these individuals are unhoused, and what supports are needed for them to move into stable housing
Communities need dedicated staffing capacity and expertise to collect and use comprehensive, person-centric data. In addition to the improvements needed in the data systems themselves, communities need the staff capacity and data and technology infrastructure required to support a system designed to reduce, prevent, and end homelessness. Community Solutions is scaling its staff capacity investments with the aim of delivering grants to all communities by the end of 2023.
Beyond direct investments in staff capacity, Community Solutions is also developing workforce support for communities to help local teams attract and retain key staff. Staff burnout and turnover is at crisis levels across health and social services. Learning from promising efforts in other sectors, Community Solutions will provide tools and support to communities in recruiting, training, and retaining staff. For example, research has shown that peer connection and a sense of career identity outside of an individual organization improves retention. Community Solutions will test ways to incorporate these experiences in a cohort of new hires at community teams, including by convening regular peer discussions of work challenges and mapping professional development pathways in system leadership.
Strategic, flexible investments can help communities bridge gaps and strengthen systems. In 2022, Community Solutions made investments in 23 Built for Zero communities. The investments supported 12 new system-level positions, provided flexible funding to 14 communities to address barriers to housing for groups of individuals, and initiated tests of new solutions to system-level challenges in 13 communities.
Early data from these investments show that flexible resources have allowed communities to accelerate positive exits to permanent housing and reduce the number of people experiencing homelessness in the community.