So you’ve ended homelessness – but can you prove it?

The notion of ending homelessness has shaped public policy and community-based responses towards greater accountability and evidence-based decision making in recent years. While great success has been achieved, actually ending homelessness is another matter altogether. Policy makers, funders, system leaders, and practitioners alike have all come to understand that an end to homelessness means something other than an absolute end – rather, a “functional” end, or achievement of “Functional Zero”.

The notion of “Functional Zero”

A “Functional Zero” approach to defining an end to homelessness describes the situation in a community where homelessness has become a manageable problem. That is, the availability of services and resources match or exceed the demand for them from the target population. For example, a community may declare they have ended homelessness when they have enough supportive housing, shelter beds, service workers, and funds to assist the number of people accessing the services. In economic terms, we can simplify this concept to simply refer to reaching a balance in supply-demand.

More recently, communities have begun to declare they have in fact achieved the goal of Functional Zero with respect to ending homelessness. New Orleans, for example, has publicly announced they have ended veterans’ homelessness, while Medicine Hat is gaining attention as “the first community to end chronic homelessness in Canada”.

Despite these promising signs of progress, there is no internationally recognized definition of what an end of homelessness looks like, what the indicators and targets should be confirming such an achievement, nor process of verifying whether a community has indeed met their goal.

To this end, The School of Public Policy (SPP), the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH), and the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness are supporting a collaborative process to develop a national definition of an end to homelessness. Through this process, we aim to also outline critical measures needed to confirm an end to homelessness and propose a set of indicators based on a review of targets internationally and the on-the-ground experience of communities working in this direction.

Why does a common definition matter?

A common definition with measurable indicators will help us articulate what local homeless systems aim to achieve in a consistent manner, allowing comparable analysis across jurisdictions and evidence-based assessment of policy implementation for government and funders. This will contribute to continuous quality improvement and enhanced performance towards common objectives, thereby informing investment decisions, system gap analysis, and policy change.

Importantly, a common definition can help us address concerns and skepticism about “what it really means to end homelessness” encountered across stakeholder groups, including the public, media, politicians, service providers and those with lived experience.

How do we define an end to homelessness currently?

In an international review of policy documents from 61 jurisdictions, we found little consistency in how an end to homelessness is defined. Most often, an implied definition following the Functional Zero approach was used in the application of targets, benchmarks or other performance measures that define progress.

Common metrics used included:

  • Number of program and housing units available against estimated demand.
  • Length of stay in shelter/street.
  • Time between identification or ‘registry’ and placement in housing.
  • Numbers of homeless persons (point-in-time count, annual shelter /transitional housing utilization).
  • Percent who successfully exit to permanent housing, etc.

An important implied assumption across these definitions and their complementing measures is that the focus of our efforts is on effectively managing the supply-demand dynamic of the local homeless-serving system itself. In other words, an end to homelessness is coterminous with the effective performance of local services, balancing client needs with quality and efficient responses. The measures proposed track the flow into the homeless system and its capacity to respond to shifting demand with diverse interventions (prevention, emergency shelter, outreach, Housing First, etc.). They further focus on the workings of the homeless-serving system itself and how quickly it is able to assess clients for appropriate intervention, move them into housing with supports, and to what effect longer term.

While there is nothing wrong per se with this implied focus, making it the sole foundation behind a national definition of Functional Zero would fall short on several fronts, particularly evident when we look to the perspectives of those with lived experience.

The lived experience perspective

In an albeit small sample (n=6) of preliminary interviews with individuals with lived experience with homelessness, participants highlighted that access to safe, accessible, and affordable housing was essential to ending homelessness at a personal and broader social level. Secondly, they stressed that ending homelessness is more than housing as efforts are needed to reduce social exclusion and ensure those with lived experience are part of inclusive communities.

Q: What are your thoughts on typical performance indicators and targets such as the swiftness of re-housing?

Alice: … if it is just about getting people into a place where there are walls than… it’s not going to make a lot of difference. [People] are going to keep going back out [into homelessness] because there has to be community building.

What is evident from these interviews, is that those with lived experience do not define an end to homelessness in terms of targets and performance measures. In some ways, this is obvious; they look to their experience and that of their social networks to develop an understanding of what an end to homelessness would mean to them personally. Yet, to date, our approaches to defining Functional Zero have excluded such perspectives.

What use is building an effective homeless-serving system with lengths of stay in shelter of less than 30 or 21 or seven days, if those we serve report we have not ended their homelessness? There has to be congruence between the indicators we measure and the lived experience perspective. 

Moving Forward

Building on this research, we have developed a discussion paper that proposes a draft framework for the definition for further discussion across Canada. Over the course of the coming months, the COH and SPP will expand consultations on the proposed definition to a broad range of stakeholders including service providers, policy makers, funders, researchers and those with lived experience.

This blog post originally appeared on the University of Calgary School of Public Policy's blog, and has been republished with permission.