Homelessness is a huge problem in the United States. To try and resolve the issue, some communities are turning to unconventional methods- and it seems to be working. What can Atlanta learn from these communities, and how can the city use this knowledge to help its most vulnerable? 

Since 2019, the number of people experiencing chronic homelessness across the United States has risen by fifteen percent, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Chronic homelessness is defined as an individual or family who experiences homelessness repeatedly or has experienced it for more than a year. There are many factors that can contribute to someone experiencing chronic homelessness including mental illness, substance abuse, disability, or a combination of those factors, which is often seen in veteran homeless populations. 

Atlanta is a city that certainly grapples with this problem. In 2020, a survey found that the number of people experiencing homelessness was around 3,200. While the city has seen a twenty-five percent decrease in homelessness over the past six years, the problem is still significant. In order to continue to solve this problem, what steps can the city take?

This is a question that communities across the country have also asked themselves, and it seems that some might have found an answer. 

One way some communities have solved the problem is through the Built for Zero Collaborative. Using this model, twelve communities in the U.S. have ended chronic veteran homelessness, five have ended chronic homelessness and three have ended both. Each community that has joined the Built for Zero Collaborative has been able to utilize the tools created by the collaborative while also being able to adapt them to their own needs and populations. 

Community Solutions, the parent organization behind the Built for Zero collaborative, has found that in order for a community to be successful in its pursuits of ending veteran homelessness and chronic homelessness, there are four essential factors it must possess: leadership by a central team, a by-name list of the city homeless population, targeted investments to the effort, and shared goals among community organizations. 

These communities have achieved what is referred to as “functional zero” status for their homeless populations. Some, such as Abilene, Texas, have succeeded in this goal. 

K.O. Campbell, who works with Built for Zero, says that one of the driving ideas behind the project is shifting the focus from being “service-based to being housing-focused.” Instead of cities working on temporary solutions, such as short-term sheltering, they will instead invest in permanent housing for those who need it. This is done in the hope that by having housing, it will also make it easier for these individuals to find work, take care of themselves, and stay safe. 

“Our homeless resources were not designed to end homelessness, they were meant to support people while they were homeless,” Campbell said. This is what inspired Built for Zero to be different from other homeless resources. Campbell added that this approach is very different for the industry, and it is crucial for communities to understand in order to be able to achieve a functional zero status.  

Bethany Snyder, who works with Built for Zero as well, commented on how their approach is quite different from what most cities are used to. She says that previously, communities have been evaluated based on programs, not on their actual statistics on ending homelessness. 

“We hold our communities accountable for ending homelessness,” she added. 

For Abilene, this goal was accomplished by joining the Built for Zero Collaborative, taking steps to work with community organizations to reach out to their homeless population, and ensuring that no individuals were slipping through the cracks. John Meier, who worked in Abilene to help the veteran population through the Built for Zero Collaborative,  shared his experience with Atlanta Civic Circle

Working with the Built for Zero team was helpful because they pointed the community in the right direction, and offered guidance.“It’s not just ‘Do A, B, and C’ it’s ‘Here’s how to do A, B, and C,’” Meier said.  

Some of Built for Zero’s Tactics, such as creating a by-name list of people experiencing homelessness and focusing on maintaining low average levels of homelessness, are fairly new in the field. Because of this, they aren’t tactics that a lot of communities have tried to implement. Through guidance from the Collaborative, some communities are able to implement them in a sustainable fashion. 

It took Abilene about two years from when they joined the collaborative to reach functional zero in their chronic homeless populations. Meier said that the biggest difference between traditional campaigns to end homelessness and Built for Zero is that the latter provides lasting results. 

“Lots of times, communities will set goals and invest energy into them. But when those goals are met, the numbers [of people experiencing homelessness] rise again,” said Meier. 

Another key to success that Snyder shared is a community’s commitment to the work. 

“Communities need to be willing, they need to raise their hands and say ‘I want to be a part of this,’” she said. 

Atlanta has tried traditional and innovative methods of decreasing homelessness over the years, such as aligning public and private funding. These efforts have led to an overall decrease in homelessness — almost thirty percent since 2015 — showing that Atlanta is a city committed to solving this issue. 

Because Built for Zero provides tools and a framework for how to decrease and eventually end chronic homelessness, could it be a method that potentially works in Atlanta as well? Snyder said that while bigger cities do face more challenges than smaller cities, the Built for Zero method is made to work for everyone. 

“We think that every community could do this,” she said. 

If you are interested in supporting the Built for Zero collaborative, there are ways to do so even if your community is not currently working with them. Advocacy, financial support, and social media coverage are just a few of the ways to help this organization. You can find their involvement page.

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