AWS Government, Education, & Nonprofits Blog

Vision + data: Five lessons in ending homelessness

Communities in Built for Zero are able to understand how many people are actively homeless in their community, and explore data points related to who is entering and exiting that population to drive systems improvements.

Communities in Built for Zero are able to understand how many people are actively homeless in their community, and explore data points related to who is entering and exiting that population to drive systems improvements.

Since 2015, 11 communities in the United States have reached “functional zero” – effectively ending chronic or veteran homelessness and demonstrating that although homelessness is a complex challenge, it is solvable. By reaching this milestone, communities in Built for Zero, a national initiative comprised of more than 70 U.S. communities, have shown that real-time, personal-level data can empower organizations to respond to the homelessness challenge.

Built for Zero defines “functional zero” for veteran homelessness as a state where a community does not have more people experiencing homelessness than can be housed in a month.

The following communities have ended veteran homelessness, reaching functional zero, in addition to meeting the criteria and benchmarks set by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH): Rockford, IL; Arlington, VA; Montgomery County, MD; Fort Myers, FL; Gulfport, MS; Riverside, CA; Norman, OK; Bergen County, NJ; Abilene, TX; Lake County, IL.

Those that have effectively ended chronic homelessness – meaning individuals who have experienced homelessness for at least a year while struggling with a disabling condition such as a serious mental illness, substance use disorder, or physical disability – are Bergen County, NJ; Lancaster, PA; and Rockford, IL. Built for Zero shares the same definition for ending chronic homelessness as the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

These communities measurably ended homelessness when they followed these best practices:

1. Set sights on zero. Rather than defining success by how any single program is performing, Built for Zero communities create a shared understanding that success is whether the overall number of people experiencing homelessness is driving toward zero, one population at a time.

Lake County, Illinois became the tenth Built for Zero community to end veteran homelessness in July 2019. “People think ending homelessness is not achievable, because the system wasn’t designed to end it — it was designed to manage it,” said Brenda O’Connell, community lead for Built for Zero and the Continuum of Care Program Coordinator of Lake County. “But if you redesign it with zero in mind, it can be ended.”

2. Redesign how to work around real-time, person-level data. Cities and counties in Built for Zero maintain a list of every individual experiencing homelessness in a population (called a “by-name” list), updated in real time as each person’s circumstances change. This provides a dynamic picture of homelessness across a community, while also helping leaders triage and match the right level of assistance needed to resolve each person’s housing crisis.

For example, in Phoenix, Arizona, representatives from 10 organizations and agencies in Maricopa County come together every other week to go through the list of individuals needing support and identifying systemic problems that they can jointly solve. In addition to knowing how many people are actively experiencing homelessness at any time, the data also allows communities to look at inflow and outflow within this population. To date, Phoenix, Arizona, has reduced the number of veterans experiencing homelessness by half.

3. Build “command centers,” bringing together key agencies and organizations working on homelessness in a community. Often, homelessness agencies and organizations in a community operate separately, despite serving the same population. Communities in Built for Zero bring together the key agencies and organizations around a shared commitment to zero.

Bergen County, New Jersey went one step beyond, building a Housing, Health and Human Services Center that brought organizations serving people experiencing homelessness under one roof.

4. Leverage quality improvement – a problem-solving discipline adapted from healthcare – to act and test new ideas. Lake County, Illinois harnessed the power of data to test new strategies and remove barriers to ending homelessness. The team identified a roadblock after looking at their data: many veterans were staying in the local Veterans Administration medical center’s domiciliary care for long periods, instead of entering permanent housing. They then realized that the center required veterans to reside in the domiciliary in order to access dental care. With this information, the team found a way to preserve this access for veterans without delaying their entry into independent housing.

5. Redirect investments in ending homelessness toward those that yield data-driven, measurable impact. Focusing on data allows communities to identify the targeted investments needed to drive population-level reductions. “A lot of communities have many of the right resources,” said Julia Orlando, Director of Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center, “but they’re not working together in the right way.”

 

Built for Zero communities use Tableau’s data visualization software, which runs on Amazon Web Services (AWS), to track real-time data in a user-friendly way, allowing them to quickly gain insights and inform decision-making. Through its two-year collaboration with Tableau Foundation, Community Solutions has created dashboards that enable cities and counties to understand the broader patterns driving homelessness in their communities, the impact local efforts are having, and the progress they’re making towards their goal of ending homelessness.

In 2019, AWS announced its commitment to host Built for Zero’s data visualization platform for six years, the duration of their campaign. Through this commitment, AWS will help Community Solutions scale their model to more communities across the world.

“Built for Zero addresses the challenges many of our mayors are facing in communities across the country as they try to address homelessness. It builds and fosters data-driven coalitions at a community level, and drives them to collaborate on the shared goal of ending homelessness,” said Kim Majerus, State and Local Government Leader at AWS.

For his part, Jason Schumacher, head of US Grantmaking for Tableau Foundation said, “The power is really in the ability to put reliable data in the hands of people who can make decisions that improve lives. Leaders across Continuums of Care can look at what is working, where improvement is needed, and have meaningful conversations about what it will take to reach functional zero. And as data becomes a shared vocabulary among service providers, it offers new opportunities for coordination in the delivery of services to clients across the system.”

To learn more about how technology can help communities prevent and combat homelessness, read the AWS whitepaper “Homelessness & Technology: How Technology Can Help Communities Prevent and Combat Homelessness” and reach out to us at endinghomelessness@amazon.com.

The Tableau dashboard features a run chart for veteran homelessness in Cook County, Illinois and the reductions they have driven over the course of a year.

The Tableau dashboard features a run chart for veteran homelessness in Cook County, Illinois and the reductions they have driven over the course of a year.

Maysam Ali

Maysam Ali

Maysam Ali is Global Content Lead for the Amazon Web Services Institute, based in Washington, DC. She writes about how technology helps solve challenges in the public sector. The Amazon Web Services (AWS) Institute helps break down barriers between public, private, and nonprofit sectors to identify common problems and engage technology experts to find a path forward. For more information on the AWS Institute, visit https://aws.amazon.com/institute/.