The Dynamics of Ending Veteran Homelessness

By Adam Gibbs, April 28, 2016 - 4:39pm

Veteran homelessness is a complex and dynamic systems problem, one that new people enter and exit constantly. This short animated video explains these dynamics, and how they impact a community's ability to achieve functional zero for veteran’s homelessness.

“How many veterans need to be housed to reach functional zero?” This is one of the most common questions we encounter in our work with communities to end veteran homelessness. It also misses the point.

Veteran homelessness isn’t a static problem. It involves veterans moving into and out of distress every day. Trying to solve the problem by counting up to a static number is a recipe for disappointment, because the number of veterans experiencing homelessness isn’t fixed -- it changes rapidly.

Instead, communities should rethink veteran homelessness as a complex and dynamic systems problem, one that new people enter and exit constantly. Unlike technical problems, complex and dynamic problems cannot be solved with static solutions. They require adaptive, real-time approaches to intervention and measurement.

The end of a problem like veteran homelessness isn’t a single moment in time, it’s an ongoing outcome in which the total number of veterans experiencing homelessness never outpaces the number of veterans a community has proven that it can house each month. To measure and work toward that outcome, communities need to know how many veterans are entering and exiting their system every month, as well as how many remain homeless.

In the video above, the shifting dimensions of the problem are on full display. Pay close attention to the number of actively homeless veterans on the community’s By-Name List from month to month -- this is the number that helps calculate the current state of homelessness in a community. Note especially how housing doesn’t produce a one-to-one reduction in the total number of veterans experiencing homelessness. Once again, that’s because new veterans are always coming into the system, as well.

The only path to ending veteran homelessness is to measure and understand, in real time, the complex dynamics of the problem itself.

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