Addressing Homelessness with Built for Zero

By Don MacGillivray

There are many causes of homelessness, but the lack of affordable housing is fundamental. It took years to create Portland’s housing crisis and now much of the housing that is being built is not affordable for the people that need it most. The American cities with the highest numbers of homeless people are those with the highest housing prices. The top four regions in America are Los Angeles County (CA), King County (WA), Santa Clara County (CA) and Multnomah County (OR). Each location has approximately five homeless people per 1,000 residents.

Solving the homeless issue is not impossible. Houston, the fourth largest city in the America, decreased the number of people experiencing homelessness by 63 percent in the last decade by providing over 25,000 unhoused residents with homes.

A comprehensive and equitable solution to homelessness may be on the horizon. “Built for Zero” is a movement that is in use in over 100 American cities that have substantially reduced homelessness. It is a systems approach that collects real-time data that helps service providers to identify and assist the unhoused. 14 of these cities have functionally ended homelessness through the “Built for Zero” program. All three of Portland’s Metro counties are working to implement “Built for Zero.”

To be successful, homelessness needs to be objectified and defined with simple measures about the people and conditions in the communities where they are found. By collecting comprehensive, specific, real-time data, personalized solutions for individuals can be identified; this also provides a comprehensive picture of the whole dilemma. 

The data then directs resources to where they can best affect both housing investments and the various solutions to homelessness, leading to appropriate problem solving for each individual situation. When successful, homelessness is reduced to a relatively brief, nonrecurring experience. Often a person’s homelessness ends in less than 45 days.

Outreach teams are working to connect our homeless neighbors to the resources that can help them get off the street. Building trust with the chronically unhoused is extremely important as they often do not want to give up their independence for a temporary solution. They continue to receive attention to ensure that they do not return to homelessness within two years. Feedback is requested from local stakeholders including first responders, behavioral health practitioners, child welfare and other service providers working with the homelessness. As the system grows the overall system improves as the experience, knowledge and resources increase.

The “Built for Zero” program was developed by Community Solutions in 2014. A few of their sponsors include Kaiser Permanente, Providence Hospital, Bank of America and the MacArthur Foundation along with many other corporations.

Locally “Built for Zero” is involved with local government and the Interfaith Alliance, a faith-based community of congregations that work to mitigate the causes of poverty; Shelter Now, a network of organizations working collectively to organize and advocate for diverse housing solutions; and Here Together, a coalition of community leaders that worked to pass and implement the region wide funding measure to end homelessness.

Multnomah County is the primary lead in solving the homeless crisis in partnership with the City of Portland and other regional partners. There will be major increases in money from federal aid, taxes and local bond measures as officials look to make progress with the homeless crisis and its related issues.

The budget of the Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services will increase by almost 60 percent in this fiscal year. Much of the increase comes from the Metro Supportive Housing Services fund that was adopted by the voters in 2020. It is one of the largest homeless services measures in the nation and Metro’s three counties receive approximately $200 million each year. It has increased the number of shelter beds for people living on the street. It also provides rental assistance with supportive services and has helped several thousand households avoid eviction, along with other initiatives.

The only way to solve homelessness is with significant investments in housing for those that can only afford lower rents. Some of the ideas under consideration to help those in need include more long-term rent vouchers, eviction reform and prevention measures, support for landlords and renters with the “Move In Multnomah” program, purchase of low-cost hotels and buildings for temporary housing and the financial support of other affordable housing programs.

The solutions to the housing crisis will require the expertise of capable people working together and cannot be accomplished piecemeal. The homeless need decent places to live and the ability to get help to work through their problems.

Addressing Homelessness with Built for Zero

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