Explaining Built for Zero: The Approach to Homelessness Policy That Is Shaking Up the Field

Ryan Banfield
10 min readJul 9, 2023
Photo by Randy Laybourne on Unsplash

Homelessness is one of the most stubborn social issues faced by developed countries. Ever since the numbers of people experiencing homelessness exploded across multiple liberal democratic countries in the 1980s, and arguably even before that, there have been strong society-wide efforts to solve homelessness. People in governments and not-for-profit organizations across the world have sought approaches to combating homelessness that could provide results. Over the past few years, they may have found what they are looking for.

This article is intended to provide readers with the basic information needed to understand one of the approaches to addressing homelessness that is gradually being embraced more and more throughout Canada and the United States. That approach is Built for Zero, which has gained credibility particularly because it has apparently helped a handful of American cities dramatically reduce their numbers of people experiencing homelessness. This article is not meant to promote the Built for Zero approach. Instead, the remainder of this essay explains the approach’s main elements, the approach’s past successes in some cities and what experts have said about the approach. Finally, this article concludes by laying out some of this article’s author’s personal views on Built for Zero.

What is Built for Zero?

In Canada, Built for Zero is primarily promoted by a not-for-profit group called the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness (CAEH) and, in the United States, the approach is promoted by a different not-for-profit group called Community Solutions. According to the Built for Zero Canada main website, the project by CAEH is also partly funded by Veterans Affairs Canada and Employment and Social Development Canada, which are two Canadian federal government departments. The website also lists the Government of Ontario as a supporter of Built for Zero.

One of the main elements of the Built for Zero approach is the idea that all local areas should establish a by-name list. A by-name list is a list of people experiencing homelessness. This list records not just the individuals’ names, but also details about their situations, what kinds of problems they are experiencing, what kinds of treatments they are getting, etc. The list must also be kept up-to-date as the homeless individuals’ situations change. This not only enables researchers to track the broader trends of homelessness; it also enables all of the nonprofits and healthcare professionals to better know what each individual needs so they can give the homeless the help that is best suited to each of them. The information from this data also helps local communities better understand what targeted investments they should make to improve their local housing systems. To some degree, the by-name list is intended to be a way to measure the macro trends of homelessness better than the Point in Time count, which is a typical approach to measuring homelessness that counts the numbers of people experiencing homelessness once a year. The by-name list is a key element of a functioning Coordinated Access System. Having a Coordinated Access System essentially means that the process by which homeless people can access services is streamlined and made more consistent and uniform everywhere. Interested readers can read about some of the finer details of what is supposed to be in a by-name list and what it is meant to do here.

Another main element of the Built for Zero approach is the idea that each local area should establish a single team that brings together all of the organizations that serve the homeless population (such as shelters, treatment centres, housing organizations, local governments, etc.). This single team allows these otherwise-disparate organizations to all share a common understanding of the homelessness issue, share information and, most importantly, align their efforts behind shared goals. This prevents a problematic situation in which everybody pursues different ends.

According to Built for Zero, the main shared goal that all of the players on the single team must adopt is the goal of driving down the number of people experiencing homelessness to a point where the local area has reached “functional zero” homelessness. “Functional zero” means fewer people are entering homelessness than can be brought back into housing by the housing system operating normally. In other words, functional zero is achieved when the capacity of the housing system is greater than the need for housing. More specifically, based on the standards proposed by CAEH, functional zero chronic homelessness means three or fewer people in a community are experiencing chronic homelessness and this trend of there being three or less chronically-homeless people must be maintained for more than three months. CAEH provides a slightly looser standard for achieving functional zero veteran homelessness. The by-name list is a key tool for keeping track of progress and seeing if functional zero has been reached. According to proponents of Built for Zero, getting to a point where there are literally zero homeless people in a community is a much more ambitious goal to be pursued after functional zero has been reached.

Some communities that have adopted the Built for Zero approach have chosen to target communities like the chronically homeless and homeless veterans. The intent is to eventually make a Built for Zero system work for everybody experiencing homelessness.

These main principles of Built for Zero are concisely explained in a 4-minute video made by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. Community Solutions reiterates many of these points in their brief list of suggested actions that they think elected officials should take.

For readers who want more information, the New York Times published an opinion piece that discusses all of these main themes mentioned above and recaps the American experience with the Built for Zero approach, saying that it is working so far (although the article is almost 5 years old). Another news article in the Columbian also concisely summarizes Built for Zero, this time in the context of Clark County, Washington.

CAEH has created a map to show which communities in Canada are using some form of Built for Zero strategy.

On Cities That Have Achieved Positive Results Using Built for Zero

CAEH has created a useful set of tables that show which important milestones on the path to functional zero have been reached by communities that have used the Built for Zero approach.

Furthermore, CAEH has published brief case study documents explaining and celebrating the achievements of the only Canadian city that achieved functional zero chronic homelessness, which is Medicine Hat, Alberta; and the two local areas in Canada that have achieved functional zero veteran homelessness, which are London, Ontario and St. Thomas-Elgin, Ontario. The case study documents argue that the cities’ embrace of Built for Zero principles was key to their successes.

The bottom quarter of Community Solutions’ webpage on functional zero shows that 14 local areas in the United States have reached functional zero veteran homelessness, chronic homelessness or both. Three areas out of the 14 highlighted by Community Solutions have achieved functional zero for both targeted communities. Those three communities are Rockford, Winnebago & Boone Counties, Illinois; Bergen County, New Jersey; and Abilene, Texas.

It is worth noting that none of these local areas in Canada and the United States mentioned above that have achieved great success with Built for Zero are massive metropolitan areas that are home to millions of people. Out of the 14 areas highlighted by Community Solutions, the one with the highest population is Montgomery County, Maryland, which has a population of just over one million people and has reached functional zero for veteran homelessness only. In other words, success in the fight against homelessness has generally not been achieved to the same extent by massive cities. Although, Houston, Texas is an example of a massive city that has gained a significant amount of attention for its progress in reducing its numbers of people experiencing homelessness. Houston’s efforts have involved many ideas that bear clear resemblances to Built for Zero. Such ideas, explained in an opinion piece by some of those involved in Houston’s efforts, include bringing together all relevant organizations to work in a collaborative fashion, ensuring that all relevant organizations adopt a common set of goals, using a centralized database to track people’s needs and standardizing the assessment used to take people into the system and match them with services.

By this point, readers may be able to notice that Built for Zero is mainly meant to shift how communities monitor and pay attention to homelessness and is not mainly meant to shift how communities house people. Built for Zero generally does not propose a specific set of policies for getting people into housing and it generally does not weigh into the discussion surrounding what services should be offered to people experiencing homelessness. Instead, Built for Zero focuses on promoting a set of means for tracking the evolution of the homelessness issue as well as a set of goals to try to achieve.

It should be noted that not every city that attempts to use Built for Zero has a positive experience. For example, one of the major issues faced by Portland, Oregon’s attempt to use the Built for Zero approach is that they had a difficult time building up their by-name list in a prompt and timely manner.

Selected Views on Built for Zero From Experts

The following is a selection of academic articles about Built for Zero:

  • Batko et al. (2021) of the Urban Institute think tank supports Built for Zero as an approach for potentially delivering system-wide positive results by showing four Built for Zero communities that have achieved many positive outcomes. These outcomes include increased numbers of service recipients who got permanently housed, reduced lengths of homelessness, decreased service use, and sustained housing for service recipients, lowered demand for emergency services and increased economic growth in business districts where the homeless often converge.
  • Grainger (2021) shows that, in scenarios where Built for Zero is being used as an approach to fight homelessness, political economic constraints force players in the system to make tradeoffs in order to achieve functional zero and these tradeoffs marginalize the needs of some clients by referring them to suboptimal housing. He ultimately argues that a fair and equitable path to functional zero requires adequate housing resources so the needs of the people using the services are not sidelined.
  • Evans and Baker’s (2021) article is a very theoretical argument that frames Built for Zero as a “problematization” and says that it is a product of our tendency in neoliberal politics to frame policy failures as epistemic issues rather than deeper structural issues.

Personal Opinions on Built for Zero from This Article’s Author

Now that I have established an overview of Built for Zero, I would like to provide a few of my own personal views on the approach:

  • I think that the ideas of a by-name list and a single all-stakeholder team can be expanded and implemented at the country-wide level, not just at the local level.
  • A Canada-wide by-name list may be beneficial because it could allow all of the groups that serve the homeless to keep track of the issue and how it is trending across the entire country. This wealth of macro-level data could allow researchers and policymakers to craft better national, provincial and territorial homelessness policies. Also, a country-wide by-name list would allow service-providers to better understand the needs of homeless people who arrived from outside areas, allowing them to pick up their treatment and recovery journeys from where they left off rather than having to be loaded into a new system that does not know them. This may be useful considering how some homeless people travel from less urban areas to more urban areas in order to access services that are more available in those more urban areas. Of course, there would have to be strong security and privacy rules in place to ensure that the personal information in the list is not abused and is only seen by those who need to see it.
  • A single team that brings together all of the most relevant housing-related organizations on a country-wide level may help to allow for the coordination of national homelessness policy. If the federal government was a member of this team and regularly participated in conversations with the other organizations, everybody could more-easily come to agreements on how to best leverage the federal money that is key to funding homelessness programs across the country.
  • The Built for Zero approach is likely compatible with many other homelessness policies. Remember that the approach is mainly meant to change how organizations monitor homelessness as well as what goals should be promoted and also remember that the approach does not really specify what policies should be used to get people off of the streets and into housing. This means that a government could potentially pair the Built for Zero approach with whatever housing and treatment policies they want. Regardless of whether a government embraces or rejects ideas like Housing First, Safe Supply or Universal Basic Income, whatever policy regime they choose can be used in conjunction with the monitoring strategies and goals proposed by Built for Zero. Northumberland County, Ontario is an example of a community that has taken an approach that uses both Housing First and Built for Zero.
  • The American cities that have made significant progress at solving homelessness provide the most useful precedents for Canada to look at and learn from. This is because Canada and America’s social policy and welfare systems are very similar. The similarities between the welfare states of Canada and America (both considered liberal welfare states) are certainly greater than the similarities between the welfare states of (liberal) Canada and (social-democratic) Nordic countries, who are often upheld as places that provide a lot of lessons for solving homelessness. Looking at US cities with successful homelessness policy regimes and seeing what worked for them should provide lessons that are directly-transferable to Canadian cities.
  • Finally, the last view about Built for Zero that I would like to provide is the following: The fact that people are still willing to try new homelessness policies shows that there is willpower to actually end this devastating issue. A key part of solving a complex issue like homelessness is believing that it can be done. Nobody should lose sight of that.

Thank you for reading this article. Hopefully readers can take away a greater understanding of an approach to homelessness policy that is already transforming the field and may become even more widespread in the coming years.

Disclaimer: The contents of this article are not endorsed or sponsored by the Government of Canada and do not necessarily reflect its views. The author’s views in this article are his personal views alone and he did not write these views in his professional capacity as a federal public servant.

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Ryan Banfield
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Undergraduate Public Administration student and avid follower of government affairs and public policy, especially relating to homelessness.