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The Keys To Ending Homelessness: Data and Technology

Leading Through Change

Dame Louise Casey and Beth Sandor and their organizations are developing innovative solutions to use data to understand the root causes of homelessness and the people behind the crisis. Here's what they have to say.

In this week’s edition of our Leading Through Change series, two leaders discuss how they use data and technology to bring the global population of those experiencing homelessness to zero. Dame Louise Casey, Chair for the Institute of Global Homelessness, currently leads a British government task force focused on homelessness during COVID-19 and has already moved over 20,000 people into temporary housing. Beth Sandor, Principal at Community Solutions, codirects Built for Zero, a movement of more than 80 communities in the U.S. who redefine what’s possible in the fight to end homelessness.

It is estimated that there are as many as 150 million people facing homelessness around the world. Dame Louise and Sandor noted that, as COVID-19 continues to magnify our inequities, many more will be displaced. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, such as staying six feet apart, are often not an option, and despite shelters increasing their occupancy to aid in shelter-in-place orders, a more permanent solution is urgently needed.

Both Dame Louise and Sandor and their organizations are now developing innovative solutions that use data to understand the root causes of homelessness and the people behind the crisis. Following, are a few highlights from our conversation. Some of the content has been lightly edited for clarity.

A three-step approach to solving homelessness

“The solution to homelessness isn’t just a house.” — Dame Louise Casey, Chair for the Institute of Global Homelessness

Dame Louise describes solving homelessness as walking into a bathroom with the tub overflowing. The first thing you do is “switch off the taps” to prevent the problem from getting any worse.

The next step is to deal with the most immediate problems for the people experiencing homelessness. Provide them with food, shelter, medical treatment – resources that can, at least in the short term, alleviate their suffering. She noted that, in the long run, people in these situations often face significant challenges where the solution is “neither cheap, easy nor basic, and it’s more than a cup of soup.” Dame Louise suggested that clever use of data and information is key in getting the funding needed to help.

Sorting out the homelessness system sustainably is the final step. “The solution to homelessness isn’t just a house,” She says. “To move people out of the system permanently, we need to give them access to treatment and jobs, and we need to remove the label ‘homeless.’” 

Data first, then action

“We know more about how to count birds than we do how to count the homeless.” — Dame Louise Casey, Chair for the Institute of Global Homelessness

Getting an accurate picture of global homelessness is challenging, but critical for driving decisions about resources and funding. The last global survey attempted by the United Nations was in 2005 – nearly 15 years ago – and estimated that 100 million people were facing homelessness worldwide. However, definitions of homelessness vary from country to country and census takers struggle with “hidden homelessness.

“The sad fact is that we don’t know the extent of homelessness on a global level,” says Dame Louise, “and if you can’t see it and count it, targets and action don’t follow.” She believes technology plays a key role in driving action – facilitating a global count through use of mobile phones, and connecting it with local analysis. “Let’s use this global moment of the pandemic to unite around having consistent information that leaders like me can use,” She says.

A sustainable model for community action

“That’s our mission now, to create credible evidence that ending homelessness is possible and scalable.” — Beth Sandor, Principal at Community Solutions

Sandor and her team designed Built for Zero to answer the question: “How do we move away from counting up to housing placements, and instead countdown to functional zero, a [homelessness] population level that is sustainable, measurable and consistent across the United States?” Eighty communities raised their hand to solve “the impossible,” and over the past five years, her team has seen 12 communities end veteran and/or chronic homelessness, and put themselves on a path to ending all homelessness in their communities.

In one of those communities, Gulf Coast, Mississippi, a veteran who becomes a victim of homelessness can now be permanently housed within 11 days. “That is so powerful to know that, if all the other systems fail me, my community will ensure that I get safely rehoused,” says Sandor. “This is happening now in the communities we work with and it is within our reach to scale.”

Fostering a culture of accountability

“We need problem-solving skills, data, and an approach that are as nimble and dynamic as the problem.” — Beth Sandor, Principal at Community Solutions

Through a series of Tableau dashboards, Sandor demonstrated how Built for Zero equips local leaders to visualize the dynamics of homelessness in their communities, monitor progress toward targets, make decisions about resource allocations, and evaluate the effectiveness of different approaches in driving sustainable reductions in the unhoused population. This practice creates a data-driven culture where community leaders can iterate, learn, and hold themselves accountable for results.

Sandor says the communities that have ended or achieved reductions in homelessness have five things in common: 

  1. A commitment that all programs and investments are tied to a shared, measurable target for zero homelessness.
  2. Data and feedback on what’s happening in the system and what’s happening for people.
  3. A dedicated, nimble team who has the capacity and the capability to do systems change work.
  4. Proven practices that every community can test and adapt in context to see if it can drive reductions.
  5. Access to flexible resources so teams can pivot in response to new information or different needs, and not have to wait to apply for new funding.

Homelessness and hope

A sentiment that both Dame Louise Casey and Beth Sandor shared — and a hopeful close to the conversation – was their adamant belief homelessness is solvable.

“There has to be a belief that [ending homelessness] is possible,” says Sandor. “The more evidence there is from communities that are doing this, the more believable it becomes. Every person in a community can hold their mayors and organizations accountable to drive outcomes and drive progress for more investment.”

“Think conscience, think action,” says Dame Louise. “You have to have hope that something is possible. We can come out of COVID with children not being hungry, and with people not being on the street. It’s incumbent on everyone to do something about it.”

We all have a role to play in ending global homelessness. To learn more, watch the full interview with Dame Louise Casey and Beth Sandor at the link below.

This conversation is part of our Leading Through Change series, providing thought leadership, tips, and resources to help business leaders manage through crisis. Prior video interviews include:

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