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Project Uses Human-Centered Design to Tackle Homelessness

Community Solutions' unique, human-centered approach to helping local government organizations tackle the challenge of homelessness is rapidly spreading to new communities throughout the country.

For many years, homelessness response work involved counting up — counting how many people are put in new homes, or how many are provided with government services, or how many are taken off the streets in other ways, and so on.

A few years back, however, one nonprofit group in the space decided to change its benchmarking. Instead of counting up, the group started counting down. Down to zero people experiencing homelessness in any given community. On the surface, it might seem like a simple change, but in practice, it’s one that has now made a major difference, leading to what is quite possibly the most successful gov tech effort in homelessness response of all time.

The group who made this change is Community Solutions, and its homelessness response program is the aptly named Built For Zero. While counting down may be the central tenet of its philosophy, its work has actually been rising, with Built for Zero now containing 89 participating communities across the United States. In addition, the work’s funding has increased quite a bit as well with the recent reward of a $100 million MacArthur Foundation Grant, a sizable amount of money for most any public-sector initiative.

And in a way, this progress all connects back to that one benchmarking tweak, said Aras Jizan, portfolio lead for data and technology for the Built for Zero initiative at Community Solutions.

“Just asking what is the goal here and how do we define success was a game-changer,” Jizan explained.

The work, of course, is far more complex than that.

In broad strokes, it involves helping folks — be they other nonprofit groups, local governments, public health departments, etc. — set goals around ending homelessness, and then leveraging better data to meet those goals. Built For Zero sends teams to coach participating local partners through all of this as part of the work, doing so on a tactical level.

Rather than doing something like setting an ambitious and broad five-year plan, they ask what the jurisdiction has been doing for months and how is that working, followed by looking at what lessons can then be learned.

It’s a human-centered design approach, one that seeks to tackle a gigantic and often intimidating shared problem for communities across the nation in a granular way, subsequently checking in on near-daily progress and making adjustments to ensure continued progress.

Within that, the Built For Zero approach also takes advantage of some other best practices in the public-sector space, including peer learning and offering scorecards around obtaining better data.

To make some of this happen, Community Solutions works with a number of partners, among them the Tableau Foundation, which is a philanthropic organization in the public-sector space that provides software and technical expertise to projects like this one. Tableau has been a vital partner in Built For Zero, Jizan said.

Jason Schumacher, Tableau Foundation’s program manager, stressed the importance of timely data in homelessness response, an area where government data can often be 18 months out of date. It has not traditionally been uncommon, in fact, for public officials to craft homelessness response plans drawing from data that is that old, which is problematic with a challenge that changes as rapidly as homelessness.

“There’s so much more possibility if we just end up giving them access to the best analytics platforms that we can, and see what happens,” Schumacher said.

Part of Built For Zero is providing partners with Tableau’s software platform — which enables the project to not only take better data from a range of sources throughout a community but to also create better visualizations with it.

Essentially, what this program is doing is providing its local partners with a series dashboard, as well as coaching these communities on how to best use it. There’s also an open-ended approach to this assistance, wherein Community Solutions is willing to continue providing as much training in the work as a participant is willing to request.

T.J. Reed, the regional homelessness project manager for the Maricopa, Ariz., Regional County of Governments, has worked with Community Solutions as a member of multiple agencies, and he shared a long list of valuable contributions the program has made to the work. Among the items Reed praised were help obtaining and valuing granular data, specifically information around the identities of the people experiencing homelessness.

“We want to view it by name, we don’t want to view this by numbers,” Reed said. “We want to be reminded daily that these are actual people experiencing homelessness and struggling. That should be a sober reminder every day when we go to work, and a reminder that there is some urgency to this.”
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.