Real-time data, honestly shared: a brave new strategy that can help end homelessness?

Edmonton, Canada

Built for Zero programmes in North America suggest that bringing a community together around a real-time, honest appraisal of data at an individual level can produce new ideas and energy for solving homelessness. Now Crisis is trialling this approach in the UK

Matt Downie

National homelessness strategies can make a big difference – particularly when tied to coordinated action on housing supply, as the leading example in Finland shows. But are we also missing a trick if we ignore the power of more granular, even individual-level strategies? In an age when the power of real-time data is being harnessed for every other conceivable human experience, then why not for reducing and ending homelessness?

In North America, two leading innovators in Canada and the United States are demonstrating the power of communities taking matters into their own hands – by supporting leaders in situ to know exactly who is homeless, why, and what is working to resolve every single case. They call it ‘Built for Zero’.

Communities who decide to end homelessness

Built for Zero is a programme of support for communities who themselves decide they would like to end homelessness. Typically, this means local government leaders or charitable organisations (or both) seeking out the strategies required to meet their ambitions locally, then being coached to develop the service design, data management and other skills they need.

The approach is making tangible progress in North America, and the number of communities that have real-time data about their homeless population is growing rapidly. Recent examples of dramatic reductions in chronic homelessness in cities such as Edmonton, Alberta, Rockford, Illinois and London, Ontario show that – when combined with local reform – this approach can lead to a breakthrough.

Every community is different, of course, and the precise causes and solutions to homelessness naturally vary. However, there are some consistent elements across each of these successful communities that are worth highlighting:

  • By Name lists’. This is the idea that in order to accurately and comprehensively understand homelessness, every person experiencing it – in hostels, night shelters, on the streets – is spoken to, with critical information collected about them all. This generates a comprehensive dataset of everyone who is homeless, updated in real-time with any new information on an individual level. Importantly, the list is not restricted by any previous rationale for limiting who might be counted as homeless, such as only those bedded down in doorways, or those legally entitled to a local service.
  • Data bravery. Once a By Name list is established, the number of homeless people recorded is likely to be higher than previously thought, and certainly more expansive than reporting based only on those receiving services. Honesty about this total is the only way to make true progress, and it also takes bravery to share these data publicly, revealing the full scale of the problem – the progress and the setbacks on the road to ending homelessness. With this open approach, communities can draw a wide set of actors into their strategies to prevent homelessness or rehouse people, including community volunteers to help speak to individuals who are homeless, and local businesses or civil society which can be motivated by place-based change where they live and work.
  • In-flows and out-flows. A strong lesson from the US and Canada is that strategies which simply count the number of people being helped out of homelessness are insufficient. A By Name list places greater emphasis on understanding where homelessness is coming from – the causes and the trends behind those causes. This fits nicely with communities that already try to prevent homeless in-flows through (for example) prevention of evictions, with Newcastle in the UK being a world-leading example. Prevention is not enough, however; we also need data on why people are not successfully helped out of – or return back to – homelessness. Individual-level data are an unforgiving judge of whether traditional services are working to sustain exits out of homelessness.
  • Agile approaches. Most strategic planning to tackle homelessness will include a pre-determined set of measures aimed at reaping rewards some years in the future. While much of this is logical (for example, planning for enough housing stock), an agile approach can allow teams to take shorter-term risks and interrogate what works (and doesn’t) in prevention or rehousing efforts. The Built for Zero programme also tells us a lot about how agile approaches can help motivate and sustain these teams through tough times.
  • Housing-led solutions. Seeking an end to homelessness in communities also demands intolerance for people having to spend time living in emergency or temporary accommodation. As with most communities in the UK, North American towns and cities have traditionally dealt with homelessness via night shelters and hostels; in contrast, the housing-led approach is based on the idea of securing quick and permanent access to mainstream housing – and ending, rather than managing, homelessness.

Many of these approaches are challenging – from GDPR and other data-sharing concerns to reductions in local government finance and much else besides. However, community-led, data-based change is also a liberation from national strictures and restraints. Much as we’d all like the long-term causes of homelessness to be resolved (intergenerational child poverty, decades of under-investment in social housing, etc.) communities can make progress in spite of – or even in response to – these issues.

New energy for solving homelessness

While the US and Canada have very different social climates to many countries in Europe, the lessons that can be learnt are clear. Setting up systems that focus on ending homelessness rather than managing it are motivational and effective. Bringing a whole community of professional and interested parties together around a real-time, honest appraisal of the data can produce new solutions and energy for solving homelessness.

In the UK, Crisis is working with local authority partners to demonstrate the real-time data, By Name list approach – in two very different housing and homelessness situations, Oxfordshire and Newcastle. Our initiative is about achieving change for real people, of course – but it also sets us a task of learning whether and how pre-existing ways of counting and tackling homelessness can be changed.

We know the By Name list is not necessarily what central government wants these councils to spend their time on, so we are conscious of the need to demonstrate its added value. Data bravery requires local leadership, with people who are confident in explaining that understanding a problem in depth – all the way to individual-level data – not only takes time, but also a more honest and actionable account of the problems we seek to solve.

Nothing excuses the national policy changes that are required to end homelessness. But perhaps a more organised and determined data-based approach is the next front in the battle to realise this aim.

Matt Downie is Director of Policy at Crisis UK