On January 26, volunteers who work in Bergen County, New Jersey’s homeless services sector will fan out across the county to count the number of homeless people for the county’s annual point in time count. The count is a requirement of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that helps decide how money is distributed to states.
The entire state is anticipating that COVID-19 will present problems with the annual point in time count; there will be fewer volunteers than in pre-pandemic years, people who are unsheltered may be reluctant to speak in person due to fear of transmission, some may be in hospital rooms rather than shelters.
But despite the presence of COVID-19, officials in Bergen County are nevertheless hoping that this year, as it has in the five previous years, the county will have reached “functional zero” for chronic homelessness and veteran homelessness. Functional Zero is a metric created by the nonprofit Community Solutions. It includes a definition for ending chronic homelessness, which is the same as the federal government’s definition, as well as a definition for ending veteran homelessness, which deviates from the federal government’s definition. Far from meaning the county is not experiencing homelessness, the formula essentially assures that capacity exists to house everyone within a prioritized category relatively quickly. Bergen is one of only three jurisdictions that have met these benchmarks for both chronic (defined by HUD as long-term homelessness caused by disability) and veteran homelessness, according to Community Solutions, the nonprofit that has been partnering with localities to provide support as they reach these goals.
Julia Orlando, Director of Bergen County’s Housing, Health, and Human Services Center coordinates the county’s efforts, says the county attained these benchmarks even throughout the pandemic. “Even at the height of the pandemic we met every two weeks,” she says.
As with the 97 other jurisdictions that have partnered with Community Solutions to achieve this goal, the first step was to create a detailed list of everyone experiencing homelessness within the vulnerable communities in question. Called a “by-name list” by Community Solutions, it also includes history of homelessness, health issues and other needs. People are given scores to prioritize how much support they will need — people with higher scores may be triaged to permanent supportive housing, whereas a person with a lower score “just needs a little help to get back on their feet,” Orlando says.
Orlando says this also helps the county to personalize its approach. “It has to do with what kind of services they want,” she says. Someone who has age-related disabilities would be connected with senior services, for instance, and a veteran may be connected with the county’s network of veteran supports. “by connecting people to their interest, needs, communities, that’s what keeps people housed,” Orlando says.
The county also consolidated all of its homeless and social services into one agency and housing that agency within one building. The Bergen County Housing, Health and Human Services Center is a single 27,000 square foot building that provides meals, shelter, access to medical appointments and case management, what Orlando and others in the county refer to as a “one-stop shop.”
“I think what they’re doing effectively is breaking down a problem to manageable proportions,” says Diane Riley, executive director of the Supportive Housing Association of New Jersey. “They tried to make it as easy as possible for [unhoused] people to talk to one group of people and have them do the legwork.”
The county entered Community Solution’s Built For Zero program in 2015 and, with technical support and “coaching” from the nonprofit to develop its by-name list, it achieved “functional zero” chronic homelessness only six months later, in February 2016, and functional zero veterans homelessness in 2017.
That’s a remarkably short timetable, but Orlando says that the county essentially had all the necessary resources before entering Built For Zero, it just had no centralized, coordinated way to connect people with those resources.
It’s also important to contextualize what “functional zero” means and “chronic homelessness” mean in the context of HUD as well as Community Solutions’ Built For Zero program. As Next City has written, it can be confusing for cities to claim they’ve attained these milestones when homelessness is still prevalent.
Data from Bergen County’s annual point in time count show that the total number of people homeless on the day when the P.I.T. count occurs has remained more or less steady, even as veterans homelessness and chronic homelessness were reduced to “functional zero.” In 2019, the number was 271; in 2020 there were 352 people counted and in 2021 there were 279 in the count. However, HUD expects that all point in time counts for 2021 were likely low-ball estimates given the difficulty of doing point in time counts during the pandemic, according to a spokesperson from Monarch Housing Associates, the entity that coordinates New Jersey’s point in time counts.
Because the county and the federal government require someone to have a disabling condition to be counted as “chronically homeless”, using the term may also elide the fact that people are still experiencing long-term homelessness in Bergen County. According to the January 26, 2021 point in time count, 279 people in the county were experiencing homelessness at the time of the count. Of those people, 4 were “chronically homeless” according to HUD’s definition, which included 2 people in a shelter and 2 living outdoors.
But this does not describe the persistence of long-term homelessness: there were 42 people in Bergen County’s 2021 P.I.T. count who had been homeless for more than 1 year, 13 of whom had been homeless for more than 3 years. (Overall, about 50 percent of people identified in the count had a disabling condition.) Another 119 people had been homeless for more than three months but less than a year.
Tragically, during the same point in time count last year, a reporter shadowing Bergen County’s then-director of Veteran Services came across the body of an unsheltered person who had died from the cold the previous day.
Some homeless services nonprofits like National Coalition For The Homeless have criticized the “functional zero” approach on the basis that it focuses on rehousing rather than addressing the problems that lead to homelessness. A community could theoretically have skyrocketing homelessness but, provided most of that homelessness is relatively brief, could still reach functional zero homelessness. “In no other walk of life do we address a crisis by redefining it and settling on homeostasis as the new reality,” wrote Bob Erlenbusch, Executive Director of Sacramento Regional Coalition to End Homelessness in a 2015 white paper.
For their part, Community Solutions has taken the approach that organization, cataloging and shoring up data and metrics - their primary approach - will always be a crucial part of decreasing homelessness.
”It could be that the number is low but you will have people on that list who have been homeless for more than a year,” says Julia Parshall, with Community Solutions. “It doesn’t mean no one ever experiences homelessness,” Parshall says, “but for a system that is working that way, you have to mostly be housing most of the people within 30 days.”
Parshall says that the organization has the goal of eventually ending homelessness, and that jurisdictions can go beyond “functional zero” metric individually. “The goal is to end all homelessness,” Parshall says. She says that Bergen County has at points exceeded the requirement for functional zero. “They’ve set the higher goal for themself…we do see communities set their own goals,” she says.
Orlando believes that the data-driven approach allows the county to better organize its resources to people with the greatest need. “The metric is to ensure that people who are the most vulnerable in our communities are going to be prioritized,” she says.
The Community Solutions partnership focuses on data, not resources, which may not be enough for communities that have inadequate social services or a lack of affordable housing. But Parshall says the focus on data can help jurisdictions advocate for resources.
“It doesn’t mean that there isn’t additional resource needs,” she says, but with data “you can make a stronger, more credible ask.”
Available housing is still an issue. “It’s difficult in Bergen County because there’s not a lot of available land,” Riley, with the Supportive Housing Association, says. Community members have also pushed back on affordable housing projects, although this has abated in recent years after the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling that the state must allow the development of affordable housing, the result of a lawsuit from the nonprofit Fair Share Housing Center.
Bergen County plans to tackle youth homelessness next, another vulnerable category that HUD has prioritized. But there are communities facing short-term homelessness and long-term homelessness not included in HUD’s priority communities, a list created under the Obama administration and which includes chronic, veterans, youth and family homelessness. For instance, Bergen’s 2021 point in time count included 26 people fleeing domestic violence, all of whom had been homeless for less than a year.
And there is a difficulty of getting an accurate picture of how many people are unhoused during the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant. According to a spokesperson with Monarch Housing Associates, HUD has instructed localities not to make comparisons with 2021 or 2020 data because year to year trends will be skewed by the pandemic.
Diane Riley, Executive Director of the Supportive Housing Network of New Jersey, says that for communities that don’t have adequate resources to house vulnerable populations quickly, it still makes sense to work on organizing data, the work that Bergen has been doing through Built For Zero. “You have to look at what can you do,” Riley says. Otherwise, she says, “you wouldn’t do anything, that just leads to stagnation and no progress.”
Editor’s note: We’ve clarified the distinction between the federal government’s definition of ending veteran homelessness and Community Solutions’.
This article is part of Backyard, a newsletter exploring scalable solutions to make housing fairer, more affordable and more environmentally sustainable. Subscribe to our weekly Backyard newsletter.
Roshan Abraham is Next City's housing correspondent and a former Equitable Cities fellow. He is based in Queens. Follow him on Twitter at @roshantone.