Every year, on the same day, thousands of volunteers across the United States set out to make a count of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in their communities. John Meier, who works on veterans homelessness issues with the West Central Texas Regional Foundation, has often volunteered to help with the point-in-time count in Abilene, Texas, a city of 125,000 people about 200 miles west of Dallas.
“I always had a bad taste from doing it, because we’re approaching everybody on one day and asking questions, but we’re not really offering an opportunity,” Meier says. “It’s kind of like, ‘We want to count you and provide this data but we don’t want to offer any solutions from this event.’”
Over the last few years, though, service providers in Abilene, working under the auspices of the West Texas Homeless Network, have begun taking a much more granular approach to homelessness, building by-name lists of every unhoused person and working with each of them to find housing. That approach, part of the Built for Zero campaign, has started to pay off. In 2019, Abilene declared that it had reached “functional zero” for veteran homelessness, meaning that the number of veterans who become homeless each month is lower than the number that Abilene is able to house in a month — in other words, no veteran should remain unhoused for more than a month, at least in theory. Last year, the city also announced it had reached functional zero for chronic homelessness, becoming one of only a handful of cities — along with Rockford, Illinois, as Next City has covered — that have reached the milestone in both categories. Now, the group is turning its attention to youth and family homelessness.
The challenge is different for each category of people, but a few things have helped the group make progress across the board, says Rosten Callarman, a former housing navigator with Abilene Hope Haven, one of the groups in the West Texas Homeless Network. One of those things is simply declaring goals publicly. For example, in October of 2018, Abilene’s mayor issued a challenge to end veteran homelessness within 100 days. That way, if the group fails to meet the goal, it can publicly identify why, and name the resources it needs to meet it.
“In Abilene we’ve learned that we are either succeeding publicly or failing publicly,” says Callarman, who now works as executive director of Interested Citizens of Abilene North.
But so far, the group has met its goals. And that’s because of its individualized approach to working with people experiencing homelessness. A hallmark of the Built for Zero campaign, which recently was awarded a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, is the by-name list of everyone in the community experiencing homelessness in a certain category, which allows advocates to track individual needs and outcomes. As it was working to reduce veteran and chronic homelessness, Callarman says, the group met bi-weekly with a Built for Zero coach to figure out how to solve problems.
“She did a lot of work pushing us to think about what steps we can commit to taking right now that will help us move this person or household one step closer to being housed,” Callarman says.
That frame of mind spurred unique responses. Homeless outreach groups typically rate unhoused people on a “Homeless Vulnerability Index,” in order to determine who needs what services most urgently. Callarman says that he worked with one chronically homeless person who always wanted others to get services before he did, saying that he didn’t believe he deserved to be next on the priority list. Callarman says that he had to convince that person that he would be helping those other people if he accepted housing himself. Another man didn’t want to leave a homeless encampment along a creek bed even after everyone else had been placed in housing, because he cared about the place itself, Callarman says.
“He had taken a lot of personal ownership of that homeless camp,” Callarman says. “So he didn’t like the idea of leaving that, because he felt like he was leaving not just his home but a place he had stewardship over and responsibility for.”
Callarman says he thinks the man eventually began to come around to leaving once he believed that outreach workers weren’t condemning the space that he had spent his time maintaining. Even still, it was only after a tornado came through and destroyed a lot of nearby homes that the man agreed to accept housing.
The numbers of unhoused veterans and chronically homeless people were fairly small in Abilene — around two and three dozen, respectively. The group has been able to find housing by working with individual landlords to overcome hesitations. But there were challenges. Callarman says that as he would comb through the list of available housing, only about a fifth of units in Abilene were leasing for less than the Fair Market Rent standard that the Department of Housing and Urban Development uses to determine how much rent it will subsidize, meaning that 80 percent of the housing market was off-limits to low-income people even when they have a source of subsidy.
“We were always able to find units for people,” Callarman says, “but it was brutally obvious that most of the market was not available to us, and the portion of the market that was available to us was most likely to be substandard housing.”
Some of the people experiencing homelessness in Abilene had criminal records or spotty rental histories, and some landlords were hesitant or outright opposed to renting to them, Callarman says. But there were enough who were willing to engage that the group was able to find units for everyone. Sometimes the first unit wasn’t the right fit, but the “functional zero” standard means that even if someone’s first place didn’t work out, the network was able to find them another one within a reasonable amount of time. Many unhoused people simply want a safe place where they don’t feel bothered by a landlord, Callarman says.
“People will say ‘Oh, that person just wants to be homelessness,’ but the reality is that person just wants to feel freedom,” he says. “They don’t want to feel hassled. They don’t want to feel like someone is [meddling] in their lives all the time, and frankly that is the relationship that a lot of people have with their landlords … It’s people saying, ‘I don’t want a toxic relationship with someone who has power over me.”
Now that Abilene has declared victory — always provisionally — in the fight to end veteran and chronic homelessness, it’s turning its attention to youth and family homelessness. The challenge is much different. For one thing, it’s larger. At the most recent count, there were some 315 young people experiencing homelessness of one kind or another in Abilene, according to Meier. And the approach to resolving individual housing issues is much different, partly because of laws about how unaccompanied minors need to be treated, and partly because it isn’t always clear what funding is available to serve young people’s housing needs. People under the age of 18, for example, can’t rent homes on their own even if they have the financial help to do so, Meier says. So far, the group has not set a timeline for ending youth homelessness.
“It’s like apples and oranges,” Meier says. “I feel like we’re advancing it and I know we’re going to get there. There’s gaps in every one of the systems. But there’s a lot more gaps for our youth than there were for [chronically homeless people] and veterans.”
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.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.