Connecting state and local government leaders
Rather than relying on a single metric, communities need to develop a data infrastructure they can use to track, reduce and end homelessness.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last week released the results from the 2023 point-in-time count, revealing that overall homelessness increased about 12% over last year to a total of 653,104 people. It’s the greatest number since the count was first conducted in 2007, and homelessness grew for all subpopulations including youths, families and veterans.
The increase made headlines across the country. But while the report presents some alarming figures, its data fails to represent the complex picture of homelessness in America and doesn’t capture the notable progress some communities are making.
The point-in-time count, conducted by local continuums of care on a single night each January, offers only a snapshot of homelessness, said Adam Ruege, director for strategy and evaluation at Community Solutions’ Built for Zero initiative, the nonprofit’s program to end homelessness. The count can help the federal government understand the landscape and shape policies, but it does little to help those working on the ground to end homelessness.
The picture of homelessness presented in last week’s report is nearly a year old, Ruege noted, so it’s not particularly useful in designing solutions today. Plus, HUD only requires communities to count unsheltered homelessness every other year. While the vast majority of communities conduct that count annually, some will instead rely on data from the previous year.
Communities need to use real-time data to continuously monitor homelessness rather than rely on annual point-in-time counts, Ruege said. That’s the kind of help Community Solutions provides cities, offering technical assistance, financial support and coaching to support real-time data collection.
“A community can, at any given time, [know] how many people are experiencing homelessness, the reason why they're coming into homelessness, and the reasons why they're leaving homelessness,” Ruege said. “That can actually help a community get around the problem.”
Most communities already have the technology to collect and manage real-time datasets, he said. The difficult part is cultivating the political will to think differently about data collection, to look beyond the numerical outcomes of specific programs and consider the entire system of homelessness services. That can be a major challenge, especially since many communities may not have the staff to support new data initiatives. But the results may be worth the investment.
Take Detroit for example. The Motor City has reduced veteran homelessness by 50% since 2020, and by 70% since 2017 when providers started collecting real-time, by-name data tracking who is entering the homelessness system and who is exiting. Insights from this data will help the city reach “functional zero” veteran homelessness by the fall of 2024, meaning instances of homelessness will be rare and last less than a month, said Diandra Gourlay, vice president of social services at Volunteers of America Michigan, the state’s largest private provider of veteran services.
“Detroit is facing similar challenges as other cities … not having quality housing stock, having an affordability crisis,” Gourlay said. “But having that data helps us really understand who is experiencing homelessness and what's needed to make a measurable impact to decrease it.”
Social services providers collect information about people experiencing homelessness and their specific needs. Regardless of how a veteran looks for help, whether they call a service organization or visit a shelter in person, their information is tracked and stored in a secure centralized database, making it easier to identify trends over time and determine how to most effectively allocate resources.
“The more we break those silos down and the more we collaborate, we see that we all have a common goal and mission,” Gourlay said. “By working together, the work becomes easier, because we're bringing more and more resources to the table.” In addition to services providers, a variety of important stakeholders are involved with the effort, including local government, the county mental health authority and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Ruege noted that it’s often helpful to initially concentrate on one particular demographic, like what Volunteers of America has done with veterans in Detroit. That focus helps communities build the systems, processes and data collection methods needed to reduce homelessness in the targeted community before applying them to other subpopulations like families, youths or seniors, he said.
Homelessness is still a major challenge for the country, and record numbers from the most recent point-in-time count underscores just how much work is left to do. Still, it’s important to not let the snapshot eclipse the strategies and solutions communities are using to significantly reduce homelessness, Ruege said.
“Oftentimes, when these big news stories come out, they're really negative,” he said. “It overshadows the incredible work that's happening.”