Built for Zero: A Compassionate, Common Sense Strategy to Ending Portland's Homelessness Crisis
In response to the recent controversy, Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran explains the rationale behind Built for Zero's By-Name List and the compassion behind this new approach
As we struggle to address the public health, public safety, and humanitarian crisis of thousands of human beings living unsheltered on our streets, there has been controversy about an approach called Built For Zero (BFZ). Specific concern has been directed at BFZ’s core element of a “By Name List” - a comprehensive list of people in the community experiencing homelessness, updated in real time.
To be clear, BFZ is not a solution to homelessness. It is a proven strategy, developed by national nonprofit Community Solutions, that focuses on identifying a shared community goal of having essentially zero people living unhoused, and building what’s needed to meet that goal. Resources are invested in achieving the goal, rather than hyper-focusing on individual program outcomes. BFZ has worked successfully in many jurisdictions across the country, and I believe that this strategy can be effective wherever it is implemented.
Three elements are necessary for BFZ to be successful. First, there must be a defined, shared, measurable goal. Second, there must be a “command center” that is collectively recognized as the advisory and decision-making body to coordinate services, assess progress, and ensure accountability. And finally, the right information must be obtained to understand who people are and what they need, so that limited resources can be directed effectively and progress can be measured. This crucial information is contained in the By Name List.
Having a list of people needing housing services is not new. The federal Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) currently collects data on people who are homeless.
However, HMIS is insufficient to meet the needs of BFZ for a number of reasons: HMIS’s function is to meet federal funding requirements, not the needs of people living unhoused. HMIS excludes hundreds to thousands of people because it does not proactively seek to connect with all people who are unhoused. And it is not regularly updated.
The By Name List, in contrast, seeks to include all people, in real time. It is an active process, based on relationships, that asks people living outside what they need to be housed, and what their barriers have been. And in understanding individual needs, smart investments can be made at the community level so that limited resources can be used most effectively to meet those needs.
Every single person experiencing homelessness has their own history of how they got there and what is keeping them stuck. The By-Name List is a way to learn – directly from each individual – what they need and what’s not working for them, so we can invest in the resources and services they need to get unstuck.
Right now in the Portland Metro area, we have tremendous financial resources to address homelessness, thanks to the Supportive Housing Services Measure and other funding sources. We have incredible front-line providers making a difference in the lives of people living outside every single day. What we lack is the knowledge of how many people actually need services, who needs what services, and the strategy and comprehensive plan to put it all together.
BFZ is a common sense approach that, if done right, can make a difference in putting it all together. It is not a “silver bullet” or solution that will magically end homelessness. And it cannot be considered in a vacuum – implementation will entail time, energy, dedication, and collaboration. But as part of a broad-based strategy that provides a full continuum of housing and services, BFZ can be a game changer.