The Power of Prioritization

By Adam Gibbs, April 13, 2015 - 10:26am

A data-driven triage and referral process helps outreach workers match people with the best housing options to fit their needs, allowing communities to move more people into housing while using limited resources as effectively as possible.

Recently, we took at look at the critical role of data collection in creating a housing system built for zero. By collecting data on each and every person experiencing homelessness on their streets and in their shelters, Zero: 2016 communities are building a system that allows them to make informed decisions based on need and acuity, ensuring that people are connected with the best housing to fit their needs and that limited resources are used as effectively as possible.

This hasn’t always been the case, however. Historically, those who were first in line for housing assistance have been the first to receive help, regardless of factors like length of time homeless or health status. While this may have been the easiest way to address homelessness, it wasn’t the most effective way, and it prevented communities from making inroads toward ending homelessness outright. In contrast to this first-come-first-served approach, communities should draw upon by-name data in order to prioritize people for the housing options that best fit their needs and that are the most likely to end their homelessness permanently.

Think for a moment about how an Emergency Room functions -- patients are triaged based on the severity of their needs and treated for these unique needs. Just as a physician wouldn’t prescribe the same treatment to patients on a first-come-first-served basis and without regard for their particular injuries or ailments, neither should a community working toward ending homelessness function this way. Rather than going down a list and matching people with whatever assistance may be available, a successful community takes into account a number of factors such as health and length of time homeless in order to serve individuals or families experiencing homelessness based on their unique needs in accordance with research and local priorities.

For example, let’s imagine two people within the same community have been identified as homeless. One is a 65-year-old individual with a history of heart trouble and diabetes, who has been living under an interstate overpass for the last 20 years. The other, a healthy 25-year-old, was recently laid off from his construction job and has been rotating between a friend’s sofa and a local shelter for several weeks. It’s clear that both individuals need help, but it would make little sense to provide them both with the same kind of assistance. While the 65 year old may need permanent housing and support services, short term rental assistance may be all that is needed to help the 25-year-old get back on his feet.

Determining how to prioritize limited housing resources isn’t always this straightforward and simple, however. While the use of a Common Assessment Tool can help a community with prioritization, it is not a silver bullet. Ultimately, it’s up to community leaders and service providers to determine the prioritization process and make the final decisions on how best to utilize resources.

Not only does this data-driven triage and referral process help outreach workers match people with appropriate housing options, it also helps communities accelerate their housing placement rates (the number of people being moved into housing each month) and increase coordination and communication among all partners working to end homelessness in a community.

Thankfully, resources exist to help guide communities establish local systems and processes for prioritization. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development recently published valuable guidance on prioritization, and as part of our commitment to helping guide communities through the nuances of assessing and prioritizing individuals and families experiencing homelessness, last year Community Solutions released a summary of HUD’s Notice on Prioritizing Permanent Supportive Housing resources.

Zero: 2016 communities across the country are laser focused on the goal of ending veteran and chronic homelessness. Achieving this goal will require hard work, collaboration, innovation and data driven planning. But by harnessing the power of prioritization and creating housing placement systems built for zero, we’re inching ever closer to making that dream a reality.


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