From left, volunteer Marci Harrison, volunteer Anna Carochi, project manager Jennifer Jones and Executive Director DeeDee Clement of Loaves and Fishes Ministries pose for a photo. (Courtesy of Community Solutions)
In February 2021, Fremont County became the 12th community in the country to achieve “functional zero” for veteran homelessness, meaning that there are fewer veterans experiencing homelessness than Fremont County can house in a month. A year later, members of the county’s homeless service provider say the designation helped them expand their services and offers a glimpse of what it takes to end homelessness.
Municipalities across the country are looking for ways to combat the rising tide of homelessness that was spurred by the pandemic. One way that some communities are addressing the issue is by joining the Built For Zero movement, which is coordinated by a national homeless advocacy nonprofit called Community Solutions. BFZ is a data-driven model that homeless service providers use to collaborate on efforts to end homelessness. While this model has helped more than 100 communities functionally end homelessness for certain groups, its broader impacts remain opaque.
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“Homelessness is solvable, and Fremont County is a great example of that,” Melanie Lewis Dickerson, who leads Colorado’s Built For Zero team at Community Solutions, told Colorado Newsline in an interview. “We can look at this example for ways we can achieve this goal in every corner of the state. And if we all believe and expect that solving homelessness is the goal, then we can get there together.”
Fremont County’s journey toward functional zero veteran homelessness began in 2019 after the county was awarded a grant from Kaiser Permanente to join the Community Solutions roster. After joining, the team at Loaves and Fishes Ministries, a homeless service provider in Fremont County, began developing a dataset of every veteran experiencing homelessness in the county, which is also known as a by-name list.
By-name lists are a core element of the Functional Zero program, Dickerson said, because it is updated in real-time and contains detailed information about each person’s homeless history, health needs, and housing situations. This data is also the basis for many case conferencing meetings, wherein service providers coordinate housing solutions for homeless people based on their individual needs.
Jennifer Jones, one of the program managers at Loaves and Fishes Ministries, told Colorado Newsline that the process of developing Fremont County’s by-name list was “eye-opening.” The team had previously known about only 12 homeless veterans through its one-night count. However, the by-name list identified 25 homeless veterans.
“Most of our veterans, apart from those who were in temporary housing or hotels because of COVID-19, try to find shelter when we do the one-night counts each January,” Jones said. “So, you would have to have a prior relationship with the rest of these folks to know where they are staying on a given night.”
Despite the trials of forming the by-name list, Jones said the effort has opened new lines of coordination with state and local agencies. For example, she said the data helped the county earn a grant from the Upper Arkansas Area Council of Governments to fund a housing navigator position at Loaves and Fishes. Fremont’s Department of Human Services also received a grant from the state to hire outreach workers who help guide people experiencing homelessness through the county’s housing services network.
Fremont County has received more housing vouchers from the state Division of Housing since it achieved Functional Zero, Jones said. Community Solutions also helped Loaves and Fishes receive a $50,000 grant from The Colorado Health Foundation to bolster their wrap-around and rapid rehousing services for homeless veterans.
Today, fewer than three veterans experience homelessness on a given night in Fremont County.
“Having the data to identify what the need is really makes a difference,” Jones said.
Rising risk factors
While Fremont County has set its sights on achieving Functional Zero for people experiencing chronic homelessness next, some of the county’s data shows that they have their work cut out for them.
According to the latest one-night count, there are approximately 80 people experiencing homelessness in Fremont County, which is up from 40 people in 2020. The sharpest increases in homelessness were measured among people with disabilities and people who are chronically homeless. People with disabilities made up 75% of the total homeless population in Fremont in 2021 compared to 60% of the total in 2020. People experiencing chronic homelessness accounted for 43% of the population compared to just 20% in 2020.
Meanwhile, risk factors for homelessness such as rising home prices and a declining rental vacancy rate have both increased over the last year. For instance, the median sales price for a home in Fremont Country increased by more than 27% year-over-year up to $350,000, according to data from the Colorado Association of Realtors. Inventory for apartments or condos is nonexistent in the county while the average price for these housing units has increased by 11% over the last 12 months to $227,000.
To make matters more complicated, Colorado’s statewide rental vacancy rate — which measures the number of available rental units — stood at 3.4% during the first three months of the year, according to the Census Bureau. For comparison, the national rental vacancy rate is 5.8%.
Gregg Colburn, a professor of housing policy at the University of Washington, argues in his book “Homelessness is a Housing Problem” that increasing home values and declining rental vacancy rates are one way to explain the variations of homelessness across the country.
“In particular, scarce and expensive housing — a condition that has become more prevalent in the United States over the past few decades — has produced a (homelessness) crisis that is even greater in scope,” Colburn wrote.
Jones said it is hard to compare the one-night count data with the county’s by-name list because of the myriad issues in the count’s data collection method. For example, the count is conducted in late January when unhoused people are most likely to seek shelter, which often results in an undercount.
But overcoming the data gap is exactly what Functional Zero is designed to help local governments do, Jones added. She said she hopes other communities in Colorado will join the Built For Zero movement as it could increase regional coordination toward solving one of the state’s most pressing issues.
“There are a number of communities that have done this work, and when you hear about the hurdles and milestones that some of them have overcome, it speeds up your ability to help folks who are experiencing homelessness,” Jones said.
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