A New Jersey county with a population of 1 million people hasn’t had a chronic homelessness problem since January.
It didn’t ship homeless people out or lock them up. Bergen County embraced a national approach that puts the onus on communities to house their most vulnerable residents.
Bergen County, across the Hudson River from New York City, is the first community in the U.S. to end chronic homelessness. Its success is confirmed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.
Bergen is one of 70 communities taking part in the Built for Zero campaign to end chronic and veterans’ homelessness.
The county proved it reduced its chronic homeless population to two or three people — down from 3,000 in its most recent annual homeless census. In fact, county officials say, everyone who was chronically homeless has been housed.
Beth Sandor, Built for Zero director, says the success rested on four critical interventions: permanent supportive housing; rapid rehousing; a Housing First approach; and not criminalizing people experiencing homelessness.
“We solve for the impossible,” she says. “What gets me up in the morning is the idea that what most people think are impossible problems are absolutely within our reach to address and solve.”
“I think that’s really important for all of us to know the interventions are evidence-based,” Sandor says.
The 70 communities, including Bergen, invested in a “problem-solving toolkit” designed to offer flexible solutions that respond to evolving challenges rather than the “static set of interventions” often used to address homelessness.
The toolkit offers solutions based on four categories: data analytics; human-centred design; quality improvement; and facilitation.
They sound simple, Sandor says, but they are key to a successful, systematic approach to chronic homelessness.
Data analytics sounds complicated. In fact, it’s simply about constantly gathering information so those working on solutions understand what’s happening in a community’s housing system and homelessness population. It allows fact-based communication with stakeholders to drive change and encourage action. It’s not abstract or general — “by-name lists” provide real-time, person-specific data that’s gathered and constantly updated.
With the information, communities can “zoom in on what the heart of the problem is,” Sandor says.
That information helps support a focus on “human-centred design” — a system that works to provide housing based on the person’s need, rather than forcing an individual to conform to the housing system’s requirements.
“It’s starting with the user,” Sandor says. It works by using the data to map the experience of an individual moving from the streets into permanent housing. Then the team zooms in on those steps and designs responses around the person’s needs to make it easier to find them a home, she says.
The data also helps make continuous quality improvement part of the process. “We use data to know whether the changes we’re making need improvement and we adjust in real time as we see what that information is telling us,” she says.
It’s about removing all the barriers to end chronic homelessness, Sandor notes, and understanding and responding to individuals’ needs rather than trying to fit them into an existing system.
“What would it take from this person’s abilities to get into housing and what do we need to do in order to make that work, to make that shift?” she says.
Since homelessness involves a complex set of issues that affect individuals in different ways, facilitation is needed to bring together organizations and groups with a shared aim “to work together and collaborate,” Sandor says. “We create a condition for groups to innovate collaboratively,” she adds.
What matters most, is measuring and looking at the data — the names and number of people on the list who are still in need of housing.
Treating the homeless as individuals lets agencies understand their situation — whether they’re new to homelessness, have recently left housing or have a longer history without shelter. It also lets them keeps track of the outflow — people helped into housing — and the inflow of new homeless people.
“They’re never going to get there on accelerating housing placements alone if they don’t understand their inflow,” she says of communities that place people in homes without any support or staying in touch with them. “It’s vital to understand the inflow — who’s homeless every month, in real time.”
Knowing people by name
In January 2016, Built for Zero decided that annual data like homeless counts couldn’t be relied on to set housing placement targets. “That was not real-time enough to be able to respond... or move the needle on active homeless numbers,” Sandor says.
Basically, it was taking too long to know if the changes being made to the system were creating the desired results, she adds.
Bergen County created a way to capture real-time, person-specific data on homelessness, made Housing First a core principle and targeted its housing resources to achieve its goal.
It also created a command centre model, which is a one-stop shop to increase collaboration across its many housing and service providers that had been working in isolation. They were even physically working in the same building.
The model is likened to a disaster response strategy. It was easier for multiple agencies to work together on supporting the same people in need of housing, and the groups committed to using the same tools and resources.
About 95 per cent of those housed in the county never returned to homelessness.
“What’s exciting is we know what it will take to end chronic homelessness for an individual,” she says. “Homelessness is a very complex problem, it’s very dynamic — not static — it requires us to have skills as a local team doing this work and leaders nationally who are as sophisticated as the problem is itself.”
While Bergen County was the first to get there, a few other communities have also recently eliminated their chronic homelessness problem, while others are closing in or working toward absolute zero.
Tim Richter, president and CEO of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness, says he is encouraged by the results in the U.S., and is confident that they can be achieved in Canada. He noted that his organization’s 20,000 Homes campaign can learn a lot from Built for Zero.
“There are some really important lessons from [their] experience,” he says.