Board receives update on “Built for Zero” initiative to end homelessness

April 21, 2022

The Joint Office of Homeless Services on Tuesday, April 19, briefed the Board of Commissioners on its participation in Built for Zero, a national initiative of dozens of communities, and its progress toward building a “by name” list of people experiencing chronic homelessness in Multnomah County.

The goal of Built for Zero’s work in Multnomah County is to address chronic homelessness by achieving “functional zero,” a milestone in which a community has the resources and systems in place to sustainably serve the specific population it’s working to reach. To be considered chronically homeless, someone must have been living on the streets or in shelters for an extended amount of time and/or have a disabling condition.

The partnership is part of the Joint Office’s ongoing work to improve how it collects and uses data. By constructing a regularly updated “by name” list, the Joint Office can gain deeper insights on how its services are helping people end their chronic homelessness.

By June, the Joint Office is working to meet 26 of the 28 competencies on a progress scorecard that measures Quality By Name List competencies. This will give the Joint Office the policies and procedures necessary to effectively build the Quality By Name list.

The Built for Zero work has included months of work with street outreach and shelter providers, data experts, and Community Solutions staff. Expanded street outreach investments in recent months, including new funding for outreach teams and plans to hire a street outreach coordinator, are essential components to accomplish this goal

“As we continue to deploy the new funding from the Metro Supportive Housing Services Measure, we have stayed true to the commitments we made to voters in 2020,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “To demonstrate results and improve the programs, we’re also investing in how we collect and analyze our data.”

To achieve functional zero and build that list, the Joint Office has partnered with Community Solutions, a nonprofit that’s helping more than 90 cities and counties take a data-driven approach to ending homelessness. 

Through Built for Zero, 13 communities have achieved functional zero in veteran or chronic homelessness. Forty-six communities have achieved a measurable reduction in homelessness, and 80 have achieved real-time data tracking of their homeless population. 

Since 2015, participating communities have housed more than 126,000 people.

“We want every community to be able to really quickly respond to every individual’s circumstances and episodes of homelessness to ensure they are experiencing homelessness for the shortest amount of time possible and no one is ever stuck for years and decades living unsheltered or houseless,” said Alyssa Keil, Community Solutions’ lead analyst working with the Joint Office. 

Community Solutions’ approach to solving homelessness is threefold: help communities get people out of homelessness more quickly; identify and address the root causes that keep driving new people into homelessness; and then rapidly develop the supply of affordable housing, through near-term strategies like rent assistance or new construction, to end homelessness.

Central to that goal is collecting high-quality data. With accurate data as a baseline, systems and agencies can better understand how their strategies are driving reductions in homelessness. The ultimate goal is a “by-name” list of people who are identified with markers such as “inflow,” “actively homeless,” and “outflow.” 

“I’m very excited about this work,” Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said. “I think having this kind of data available is going to help us very strategically and effectively bridge the resources to target, in this case, the chronically homeless population.”

Keil said the Joint Office already has some detailed information about its homelessness population, from its semi-annual Point in Time Count,along with signups for people seeking supportive housing and outcomes data that service providers enter into the region’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). 

But Keil said that data is often aggregate and nameless. By working with Built for Zero to build an updated “by name” list, the goal would be to have a verifiable method of keeping track of everyone experiencing homelessness in real time.

That “by-name” list would identify every individual and, eventually, every family experiencing homelessness. The Joint Office is starting initially with work to track chronic homelessness, identifying those in our shelters and on our streets who are the most vulnerable. The goal would be to update the list at least monthly, but as often as possible. 

“Our data system already has the potential to identify inflow and outflow,” said Steve Richard, the Joint Office’s data manager. “There’s much more work to be done to make the reporting complete and reliable.”

It’s easiest to collect data when someone enters a shelter or signs up to be evaluated for services or permanent supportive housing, said Lori Kelley, the Joint Office’s planning and evaluation Manager.

People living unsheltered may be reluctant to give out their personal information, she said, adding there’s a history of systemic trauma, racism and stigma attached to homelessness. That’s why the effort so far has focused on working with outreach providers to bridge that gap.

“The point in time data we know is grossly inaccurate data and an undercount of who is living unsheltered outside,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said. “We will be releasing that at some point, but we don’t know what we don’t know.”

Multnomah County is currently in the “Initial Action Cycle,” or the key first steps to achieving functional zero. The County has already created an improvement team, including providers, outreach providers, and other experts serving people experiencing homelessness. The system has also developed a reporting method to identify people who are chronically homeless.

“Reporting is important,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. “Accountability is important, and using data to change how we’re approaching the problem is important.”

Community Solutions has a 28-point “scorecard” that determines a community’s progress in putting together a complete by-name list. As of April 2022, the County has achieved 16 points, and hopes to reach 24 by June.

The Joint Office has identified three steps to get there: updating its policies, including how to define when to change someone’s status on the list from “active” to “inactive:’ achieving clear mapping of outreach coverage and deeper outreach coordination; and establishing a process for collecting data during outreach. 

“Great presentation,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “While I know there’s frustration, this was a really good first step, and we're taking that step. So, I’m excited.”