These 3 places have ‘zero’ homelessness. Here’s how they did it.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022

Welcome to Homelessness 101, an explainer series breaking down homelessness in Boulder County and beyond. Here, we’ll explore the demographics, causes of and solutions to homelessness through expert interviews, peer-reviewed research and, most importantly, input from people with lived experience. Their perspective is incorporated throughout the series and has been specifically highlighted in some places.

As the whole country grapples with an ever-growing homelessness crisis, a handful of cities and counties have done what seems impossible in Boulder: Measurably reduced the number of people living on the streets or in shelters. 

More than a dozen communities have reached what is known as functional zero for at least one population of unhoused people, following the framework of Built For Zero, a national movement from nonprofit Community Solutions that seeks to measurably reduce homelessness through collaboration, data-collection and targeted interventions.

“One of the really powerful things about Built For Zero is that it’s so adaptable to different contexts,” said Colorado-based Melanie Lewis Dickerson, Built for Zero’s portfolio lead for large-scale change. “We have these key pillars that are part of our framework that really have proven to be effective in different types of cities.”

The definition for Functional Zero varies with the population. For veterans, it means there are fewer veterans experiencing homelessness than can be housed in a month. For chronic homelessness, there should be fewer than three people experiencing it at any given time, or 0.1% of the most recent point-in-time count for individual homelessness, whichever is greater. Chronic homelessness is easier to predict, and therefore intervene in, because it defined by the time someone has spent homeless — longer than a year — and whether or not they have a disabling condition.

This “shows that a community has a system that can prevent people from experiencing homelessness long-term by resolving their homelessness before they meet that threshold,” said Lauren Barnes, media strategist for Community Solutions. “Communities have the ability to prevent that instance before it occurs.”

Essentially, the nature of Functional Zero is that more people are moving out of homelessness than are moving into it, and they move through the system incredibly quickly. 

“All of these criteria are measured based on a community’s quality data , which is confirmed as reliable, real-time and comprehensive,” wrote Barnes, in response to emailed questions. “This means, for example, that the community’s data includes person-specific data on every single person experiencing homelessness, covers the system’s entire geography and is updated at least monthly.”

14 communities have reached functional zero homelessness for at least one population (veterans or chronically homeless); three have reached it for both.

“We have nine unsheltered (individuals), in a county of a million people,” said Julia Orlando, director of the Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center in New Jersey, during a February interview. In a September update, that number had dropped to three. 

“We represent 0% of the unsheltered in the state. People attribute it to money, which is ridiculous. I don’t think money is the reason we’ve done what we’ve done.”

Editor’s note: Boulder Beat is working to report financial information from each of these communities — how much did they invest up front, and how much does it cost to maintain these services? This article will be updated if/when that information is made available.

Boulder Beat spoke to officials from Bergen County and two other communities that achieved this milestone. Here’s what we found:

Bergen County, New Jersey

  • Population: 932,202
  • Median home price: $605,000
  • Starting population: 89 chronically unhoused people

Read Bergen County’s case study from Community Solutions

Bakersfield / Kern County, California

  • Population: 900,202
  • Median home price: $335,500
  • Starting population: 62 chronically unhoused people

Read the Bakersfield/Kern County case study from Community Solutions

Abilene, Texas

  • Population: 122,999
  • Median home price: $178,000
  • 40-47 chronically unhoused people

Read Abilene’s case study from Community Solutions

Boulder County

  • Population: 326,196
  •  Median home price $770,000 (City of Boulder: $1.5 million)
  • Population of chronically unhoused people: 179 (as of Sept. 1)

How they did it

Built for Zero has a few core tenets which every participating community is expected to follow, including a collaborative, centralized leadership made up of all relevant players and real-time data on everyone experiencing homelessness locally.

Beyond those key requirements, here’s what communities said worked for them in reducing homelessness.

Service expansion

During the pandemic, Bakersfield/Kern County doubled the number of shelter beds, launched multiple additional outreach teams (including street outreach, rapid response, and behavioral health units) and opened two new navigation centers (one for the city, one for the county). 

Like Boulder, Kern County has an extreme housing shortage, said Anna Laven, executive director of Bakersfield-Kern Regional Homelessness Collaborative.

“For the last two years, we have experienced a less than 1% vacancy rate of rental units,” Laven said. “When you have no other housing available, you have to go to Plan B: temporary strategies” to keep people safe while they wait for housing, and to prepare them for it.

“We do have additional strategies that are in place while we are as aggressive as possible about adding new units into the community.”

All three communities provide low-barrier shelter, and some level of population-specific services or shelter. Each community had somewhere for unhoused people to be during the day.

“We provide three meals a day,” Orlando said. “It’s safe, it’s clean, it’s centrally located, and people leave here with housing.”

‘Aggressive and relentless’ housing focus

Aggressive was also how Bergen County’s leadership team described their housing focus. 

“We are aggressive housers: aggressive and relentless,” said Bergen County’s Orlando. “If a staff and if a team and if a Continuum of Care doesn’t have a sense of urgency to move (someone into housing) as quickly as you possibly can, you’re really not doing a service.”

Abilene, where housing is cheaper and more readily available, makes client choice part of the process whenever possible.

“They can choose the housing that’s going to work for them,” said Alexandra Hust, system improvement advisor for Community Solutions. Hust previously led Built for Zero efforts in Abilene, Texas. “What area do you want to be in? What does support look like for you?”

Working with property owners was key. Bakersfield-Kern started a “landlord summit,” and officials from Abilene focused on “in-depth partnerships with local landlords.”

“You might have somebody with two large dogs, and you might not know a landlord or property owner who is friendly to two large dogs, but someone else might,” Laven said. “Anybody who touches somebody on that list comes together in that group to leverage common resources and work together.

“You as a collective are owning the challenge of finding a permanent housing solution for everybody on that list”

“We have people with really big hearts,” Hust said. “They want to take the time to listen to and be part of the solutions.”

Flexibility

Sometimes that means convincing people to give money without a specific program or intervention in mind, Laven said. 

“Small things were getting in the way. For example, someone was from out of state. They’ve lived in Bakersfield for 20 years but their birth certificate is in Kentucky, and it’s gonna cost them $30 to get. For somebody experiencing homelessness, that does become a big deal. 

“Having flexible funding allows us to address” those miscellaneous costs,” Laven said. “When you’re talking about federal or state money,” that flexibility is not often allowed, so “we were able to land private foundation money that was flexible.”

Flexibility in service matters, too. 

“Rather than us sayin, ‘Based on these criteria, you’re eligible for the most assistance,’ it’s ‘What does your situation look like and what do you need?’ Hust said. She recalled one guest who, when asked, said he “needed a ride and $25 for an application fee.”

“We would have placed him on the waiting list to wait for a program.”

Diversion

Such quick interventions are known as diversion. Diversion services can be things like money for a car repair or an application fee, but they also include more controversial actions like bus and plane tickets out of town for non-residents — criticize because it often does not end homelessness but merely shuffles under-resourced folks to different parts of the country.

Read: Bussed out: How America moves its homeless. Guardian

The practice is widespread. In Bergen County, resident pressure caused the shelter to change its policy on serving people who come from nearby New York City. 

“We were just like, ‘Here’s a person, they need help,’” said Mary Sunden, executive director at Christ Church Community Development Corporation, which runs Bergen’s shelter program. “We got really yelled at. The taxpayers of Bergen County are not interested in paying for people who want to move from New York. They’re the people who pay our bills.”

“If you’re an unsheltered Bergen County person, we’re very low barrier,” Orlando said. “If you’re anybody else, it’s not easy to get in.”

Non-residents are allowed 72 hours at the shelter and are not turned away in bad weather. Restrictions on non-residents also came with increased collaboration with neighboring counties.

“That put up some barriers,” Sunden said, “but it also meant that we could call someone up and say, ‘You have to take this person, they’re your person.’ We don’t have that much difficulty connecting someone from the next county over with their local assistance.”

Language matters

Part of what helped get community buy-in in Abilene was a simple language change, Hust said. Unhoused clients in the official system are referred to as neighbors. The wider community was encouraged to adopt the terminology as well, modeled by elected officials and even police. 

Similarly, Bergen County refers to its clients as guests. 

“People should not be defined by their circumstance,” Hust said.

Radical hospitality, tough love?

Abilene and Bergen County both practice what they call “radical hospitality” — making guests feel welcome and taking care to preserve their dignity. Every person who comes in is treated like the mayor, Hust told Community Solutions.

“We offer the same, exact accommodations. ‘Do you want some coffee or some water? Are you comfortable where you’re at, or is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable while you’re here?”

That means meeting people where they’re at, emotionally and sometimes physically. Case managers go into the field to help with paperwork and documentation, and people can be housed straight from the streets.

“When we first started, you had to come through shelter to get housing,” Orlando said. “We realized that wasn’t going to work. Some people can’t be managed in shelter. So we house them.”

For Orlando, creating a radically welcome atmosphere is not incompatible with a tough love approach. Sometimes people need a push into new situations, she said.

“If people are pushing with love, with kindness, with concern — I don’t mean aggressively, ‘We don’t want you here’ — but I don’t want you to feel happy here. I want you to feel safe. You can’t put pictures up in your sleeping area, you can’t sleep late, you can’t stay out.

“People ask why, and I tell them, ‘You know where you can do that stuff? In your own apartment.’ And we follow through. We house them, and we show up with a moving truck and stuff for their new apartment.

“You have to be the right balance of tough and deliberate and also compassionate and generous. Our job is to end homelessness, not to manage it.”

Sometimes that means showing up in different ways. Orlando found that older women in particular, many of whom had survived abuse, were loath to leave the support system they found at the women’s shelter.

“They came here, found other women like them,” she said. “I think women freaked out, to go to their own apartment where they would be isolated, we picked up on that. We had a women’s group she ran for many years. 

“This place became a sanctuary for women in a way that we didn’t intend.”

The end of 10-year plans

This adaptability is woven into the loose Built for Zero framework. Unlike previous goals and plans to end homelessness, Built for Zero is meant to be an ongoing effort, one that requires adaptation. 

“It’s not going to be this one-time end,” Dickerson said. “You’ll constantly be monitoring and using data to figure out what the steady flow of resources will be to make sure you can hold those gains. We are in it for the long haul.”

“We don’t stay complacent with this has worked,” added Abilene’s Hust. “We’re constantly evaluating what needs improvement.”

Is Boulder Built for Zero?

Colorado is the first state in the nation to adopt the Built for Zero model statewide. Boulder is participating in Built for Zero through its inclusion in the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative.

How far Boulder is from reaching Functional Zero is hard to say, but the first steps have been taken. Boulder County’s by-name lists for those populations were recently certified by Community Solutions, meaning the county has “a real-time snapshot of all persons experiencing homelessness in a community” and what their housing needs are, as the organization wrote in its certification letter. 

“We can say with a 0% margin of error that X number of people are on our by-name list for single adults experiencing homelessness,” said Heidi Grove, systems manager for Homeless Solutions Boulder County. 

Numbers fluctuate monthly, as does the population of people experiencing homelessness, but as of late August, there are 17 veterans currently experiencing homelessness in Boulder County and 323 single adults, including 179 experiencing chronic homelessness. 

The county is still working on figuring out how long it takes people to be housed once they start accessing services. It’s a three-step process, Grove wrote in response to emailed followup questions: “Matching” people with resources, applying for them and then finding a home. 

“Each one of these phases can shift the timeframe based on numerous factors,” Grove wrote. The dearth of available units means that even when people are awarded housing vouchers, it can be difficult to find a rental.

We have people on the streets with vouchers and no units to take” them, Grove said. “We recognize and we do know it’s taking a long time between voucher issuance to lease-up.”

Boulder County has taken steps to address this, such as hiring a “landlord recruiter” to try and convince property owners to rent to formerly unhoused folks. $50,000 for financial incentives was also set aside from the county’s federal COVID-recovery funds.

We’re constantly trying to think about strategies on how we can increase our (housing) stock, Grove said. 

We’ll discuss more of the county’s efforts in an upcoming piece on the strengths and weaknesses of Boulder County’s approach to homelessness — coming this fall.

— Shay Castle, @shayshinecastle

Help make the Beat better. Was there a perspective we missed, or facts we didn’t consider? Email your thoughts to boulderbeatnews@gmail.com

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1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. My issue is the Homeless Crisis
    In weld county , I became homeless at mid fifties and I’m not a doper. The funniest is the nonprofits profit for themselves. Don’t believe me look into United Way weld county . I have been asking for housing help and that , I lost my client from Cancer . Therefore I lost my job need surgery . They don’t have FUDING? NEW BULIDING , MORE STAFF TO WATCH THE STAFF. NEW FLEET CARS . NO FUNDING TO HELP ME GET HOUSING .

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