Entrepreneurs

How 100 Communities Are Solving Homelessness—And What We Can Learn From Their Success

Homelessness is often thought of as intractable, ever-present. Yet social entrepreneur Rosanne Haggerty demonstrates how it can be solved. One hundred U.S. cities and counties collaborate through her organization Community Solutions to achieve this goal, using new tools and habits to achieve radically better outcomes. Social entrepreneur Sascha Haselmayer caught up with Rosanne about what we can learn from their success.

Sascha Haselmayer: Rosanne, your story began with volunteering at a shelter and realizing that shelters weren’t solving the real problems. Tell us what you saw.

Rosanne Haggerty: We were providing shelter for people for up to 30 days when none of them had 30-day problems. The good people running the shelter would explain, “Here are the cots, here’s the coffee pot, here’s the time the bus is going to be picking folks up.” But those experiencing homelessness would arrive and ask, “How do we find housing? Where do I apply?” I was struck by the mismatch between what people were seeking and the responses on hand.

Haselmayer: At what point did you realize it was possible to do things differently, to actually end homelessness?

Haggerty: More than ten years ago my colleagues and I shifted course and started focusing on system connection issues, on helping communities build the operating systems needed to prevent and end homelessness, not simply help those experiencing homelessness to survive another day. Our earlier work had shown us a fundamental problem: it was no one’s job in any community to see that all the assistance on offer was adding up to fewer people experiencing homelessness in that place. Leaders in other communities were seeing the same problem and volunteered to work with us and as a group to learn what it would take to actually end homelessness. This gave rise to our Built for Zero network, which now includes more than 100 communities committed to reaching and maintaining functional zero.

Haselmayer: Could you explain this term, “functional zero” homelessness?

Haggerty: When a community reaches functional zero, it means that homelessness is rare and short-lived at the population level. Homelessness is a dynamic problem and is going to look different today than it did yesterday, as people go in and out of housing crises. But communities at functional zero have a tightly coordinated system in place around the shared aim of ending homelessness. They measure progress in the same way, at the population level, not program by program. They focus on the question “is everything we’re doing adding up to fewer people experiencing homelessness?”

The key to this collaborative approach is having public health-quality data that can enable all the key organizations to see the same, comprehensive picture of homelessness, person by person, across the community, in real time. With that information local teams can see which practices and policies are leading to reductions in homelessness and which are not. That also allows them to see opportunities for improving everyone’s work through greater collaboration, and to rapidly test new ideas for preventing and resolving homelessness. These teams ask better questions as they’re able to see where their resources are having the most impact on reducing homelessness all the way to functional zero.

Haselmayer: Built for Zero now includes over 100 communities, with your team at the center. How do you support communities?

Haggerty: We start by helping a committed few people or groups gather the critical players: not-for-profit groups, city and county government, the housing authority, and the veteran affairs local office. These folks all have a piece of the information and resources needed to make progress toward functional zero, so we help them form a single, integrated team. Next, we help them gather and use the data they’ll need to have a complete and dynamic picture of homelessness across their community. We provide ongoing coaching in data analytics, quality improvement and other practices that support collaboration for results. This includes helping communities understand how to prevent homelessness, whether by collaborating with “upstream” systems like healthcare or using data to track and mitigate inflow into homelessness. And as no community should have to innovate alone, Built for Zero is also a robust peer network, with communities sharing pain points and learning from each’s successes.

Haselmayer: There are often assumptions that housing shortages are the real issue. Is that what you’re seeing?

Haggerty: Yes and no. We’re so used to a community saying: we don’t have enough housing, there’s nothing to be done. But now we have the evidence in more than a hundred places that you don’t even know what housing you need—or what barriers you’ve created inadvertently with your local policies—until you do the work of understanding the dynamics of homelessness in your community and getting better data on the nature of the problem. Plus, there are many different profiles of communities. Coastal communities that are very high cost, other communities that have lost population where housing cost and availability isn’t the same problem. There are other places where rents are deeply misaligned with local wages and are simply above what is attainable with a minimum wage job or typical wage, and not the availability of housing.

Getting specific in this way surfaces the need for a community to think of housing as a “system” that includes private landlords, government housing agencies, policies and regulations that affect housing, finance, the process of building housing. We’ve created a Housing Systems team to help communities align these elements more effectively to reduce and end homelessness.

Haselmayer: What about faith communities, what role do they play?

Haggerty: The faith community was the first responder to modern homelessness in America. Today, places like Fremont, Colorado last year ended veteran homelessness and it was an effort led by their faith communities. Abilene, Texas ended chronic and veteran homelessness and it’s their faith communities that have mobilized different local resources, working toward justice and beyond charity. And you know, in some respects, the faith community informs our thinking about how to transcend the ego and move from focusing on “my own program, my own shelter” to focus on achieving a shared, community-wide goal.

Haselmayer: It feels like people are beginning to reject the that’s-just-how-it-is mentality when it comes to this issue. This is quite something, because homelessness is often seen as this endless problem.

Haggerty: I agree, we are seeing a shift. More communities are recognizing homelessness as a dynamic problem. In other words, you don’t just end it once. Solving homelessness means learning how to solve it every day. And as the issues shift over time—say there’s a fire at a large apartment building or a natural disaster like a flood—communities must dial up what they’re doing. This reflects a mature understanding of problem solving and recognizing that there is no silver bullet here. This work is about mutual commitments, shared accountability for results, constant learning and behaviors in service of a common aim.

Haselmayer: Rosanne, what you’re describing is somehow a new way of working. Do you see spillover effects in how communities are tackling other major challenges?

Haggerty: Yes, we are hearing from many of our communities that what’s powerful about being part of the Built for Zero movement is that the skills that their government and not-for-profit blended teams are learning are the kinds of skills they need to face into many 21st century problems that require a new way of thinking, a new way of working, even a new way of contracting—frankly a new way of understanding how to tame complex problems. We saw a hint of this during Covid. The teams that were already together and had a shared, by-name understanding of the dynamics of homelessness in their community were able to respond quickly when new resources became available. They got people into hotels, into apartments—the infusion of resources allowed them to gather in a heightened emergency context and be effective. That was a powerful test of this idea, albeit still within the homelessness space.

Haselmayer: And in other spheres?

Haggerty: It’s a great question and one we’re keenly interested in. We’re looking for signals of where this is moving into how communities are tackling, say, health equity issues. You know, people have been trained to work on technical problems—but new skills and ways of working matched to complex problems are needed in the world we live in now.

Rosanne Haggerty and Sascha Haselmayer are Ashoka Fellows. Read more about Haggerty’s impact here and in Haselmayer’s recent report on cities partnering with social entrepreneurs.

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