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Reducing Homelessness WITHOUT More Housing

“We need more housing in our city!”

That’s an argument you’ll often hear when debating how to impact homelessness in the community. But what if you could reduce homelessness without adding more housing?

While adding housing can help, there are other ways to make a lasting impact in reducing homeless populations in your city. Recently on the Real Hope Podcast, I sat down with Emma Beers to discuss how we can reduce homelessness without more housing. Emma is the Strategy Lead for Community Solutions, a national nonprofit focused on creating a lasting end to homelessness that leaves no one behind.

The good news we uncovered is that you can effectively reduce homelessness without more housing. Ready to learn how? Let’s get started. 

The Built For Zero movement and a functional zero homeless population 

As we examine how to reduce homelessness without more housing, it’s first important to understand a key approach that’s receiving national attention—the Built For Zero movement

So what exactly is Built For Zero?  

Built For Zero is a movement of more than 90 communities across the country working to measurably and equitably end homelessness. Together, these communities use data-driven metrics to track their homeless populations and work to reduce homelessness so that it’s either rare or short-lived. The goal is to make systems and agencies designed to support the homeless more efficient and work together to reduce the homeless population in the community to a functional zero threshold.

You may be wondering, what is functional zero? Functional zero is a milestone that indicates a community has solved homelessness for a specific population, such as the chronically homeless, veterans, families, youth, and single adults. Functional zero doesn’t mean that no one in the community is experiencing homelessness. Rather, it indicates that the number of homeless people is below a specific community’s capacity to ensure their positive exit from homelessness.  

Think about that for a moment. The homeless population is such that your city has enough resources to help every person experiencing homeless in the community and provide their rehabilitation. No one gets left behind! 

According to Emma, this is already happening across the country in cities embracing the Built For Zero movement. Fourteen communities have already ended homelessness for a specific population, and 44 communities are working to achieve dramatic population-level reductions in homelessness. That’s incredible! 

And they’re all doing it in ways that don’t require additional housing in their communities. Instead, they’re reducing homelessness using these key strategies:

Changing the metrics to track homeless populations

In order to reduce homelessness without adding more housing, you first need to accurately calculate how many people are facing homelessness in your community so you can respond to the need. Communities that are embracing the Built For Zero movement are rethinking the standard ways of tracking homeless populations. 

Traditionally, homelessness has been tracked using a method called the Point-in-Time Count. This method involves annually counting the number of people experiencing homelessness on one single night in the winter. However, according to Emma, this method only captures part of the homeless population, as it doesn’t account for transient homeless populations.

Instead, communities are now using real-time, data-driven methodology to create comprehensive lists of the names of every person in their community experiencing homelessness and updating these lists regularly throughout the year. With reliable, detailed information, cities can monitor whether homeless interventions are working and make reactive adjustments as needed. 

Connecting the homeless to vital resources

While housing is important, communities are discovering that access to resources can be just as important for helping people leave homelessness successfully. If you add additional housing for the homeless, it’s often the case where these clusters of homes lack access to laundromats, grocery stores, bus lines, gyms, etc. Without these resources nearby, it can be a challenge for anyone to feel good about their living situation or have quality of life. 

If you think about it, wouldn’t you want to live in an area that has resources in place that can help add to the quality of your life? This plays a major factor in anyone’s decision to move to a specific community. This need for resources is even more magnified amongst vulnerable populations who already have less resources than you and me.

Instead of just adding more housing to reduce homelessness, we need to focus on giving those who are trying to get out of homelessness the access to resources they need to thrive. 

Current housing in existing communities

Some communities may not have the resources to build additional housing for the homeless. Even if they do, such a strategy may not be ideal in the long run. According to Emma, what’s more key is the city’s ability to work with landlords who own housing in communities that already exist to leverage these resources in providing affordable housing to the homeless. By inviting landlords to be part of this process in using existing housing options, communities have seen great improvements in reducing homelessness.

And a big part of using existing homes is the community support. When additional housing is built specifically for the homeless, it’s easy for these new communities to eventually become forgotten. However, when the homeless are able to live in housing located in existing communities, they’re able to benefit from being part of mainstream culture and society. And as they’re a part of this established community, they can begin to contribute to it as well, aiding in their rehabilitation! 

The importance of supporting services

The problems homeless populations are facing extend beyond just their living environment. Many homeless need additional help in other areas of life to exit homelessness successfully. 

This calls for a holistic approach—with a variety of supporting services involved.

Emma shared a story about a case manager who visited a homeless client who had been living in a home for about three months. The case manager noticed several empty water bottles around the home and asked the client why they were there. The client shared how he regularly walked to the nearby gas station to fill up the bottles with water, as he thought his sinks at home didn’t work. In reality, he had never seen faucets like those in his new home before. He didn’t know how to use them!

As you can see, additional services, life skills training, and support systems that we may take for granted are necessary for reducing homelessness. Agencies that provide services like mental health, behavioral health, and job support need to be brought to the table to help the homeless thrive in the community.

The community working together 

To reduce homelessness successfully, you absolutely need a widespread effort from the entire community throughout the process. It’s not something the homeless service sector and local shelters can do on their own. Already in previous sections we’ve discussed the need for landlords, various support agencies, and existing communities to be invited to the table. 

And when you have the community working together, you can see positive results. Emma, who used to work in the homeless service system in Chattanooga, TN, saw the city work together to reduce homelessness to functional zero for their veteran population. 

How did this happen? It’s something that every city can achieve: the community held a deep belief that they had the resources and systems to end homelessness for their veterans. All they had to do was figure out how to come together and use their resources more collectively and efficiently. Were there challenges in working together? Sure. But they focused on reaching that next goal and not getting caught up in the barriers or challenges they were facing. Eventually, it worked!

You don’t have to wait on your city to provide more housing to the community to successfully reduce homelessness. You can get started with the resources you already have in place. Other cities are achieving functional zero for their homeless populations using the strategies above. Will yours be next? 

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