Using Data for Improvement in the Fight to End Homelessness

By Adam Gibbs, April 27, 2015 - 2:07pm

Using data for improvement isn’t just about having the right facts and figures - it’s about putting them to use in order to make adjustments, refine a system and track progress in real time.

Earlier this month, we touched on the idea of using data for improvement in order to make meaningful, informed adjustments. This is the way of change agents and the most serious problem solvers across industries, from healthcare to education to business. But it isn’t a new or novel approach. In fact, many of us are likely already making adjustments and improvements that are based on data analysis.

Take for example a restaurant owner. By tracking sales and analyzing inventory, she is able to identify the most commonly used ingredients, and conversely those that are seldom needed - allowing her to place future orders more efficiently, lowering costs and eliminating waste. She may not immediately think of this as data for improvement - it’s just smart business - but at its very core, this practice exemplifies the idea of using data to make informed and impactful course corrections. It’s everyday decisions like these, backed by data and motivated by the desire for improvement, that continue to push us toward refining systems and approaches, from a restaurant protecting the bottom line to a community creating a housing placement system built for zero.

In the case of our Zero: 2016 initiative, data for improvement enables evaluation, troubleshooting and process improvement across a community’s entire housing placement system, helping communities prioritize resources, identify gaps and ensure that individuals and families experiencing homelessness are referred to housing opportunities that best fit their needs.

This practice stands in stark contrast to the status quo. Historically, communities have not collected housing placement data on a community level - an agency may have an idea of the number of people it houses per month, but chances are that data isn’t share across the entire system. Without this data, community leaders have no way of knowing if progress is actually being made, nor do they have sufficient measurements to support an improvement strategy. Essentially, they are flying blind.

The formula for change is simple - in order for a community to end homelessness, the total number of people it places into housing each month should be greater than or equal to the number of people it needs to house that month to achieve a path to zero. If those numbers are lopsided in the wrong direction, then it’s easy to tell that a community needs to adjust its strategy.

A community’s monthly housing placement figure is the number of homeless veterans or individuals experiencing chronic homelessness that it has placed into permanent housing in a given month. This measurement is a key component of a community’s efforts to end homelessness and is measured against a predetermined benchmark, also known as a "Take Down Target," to track performance in real time and determine whether a community is on track to end veteran homelessness by December 31, 2015 or chronic homelessness one year later.

But data for improvement isn’t just about having the right facts and figures - it’s about putting them to use in order to make adjustments, refine a system and track progress in real time. That’s where transparency comes in. Zero: 2016 communities are publicly sharing their monthly housing placement measurements, allowing community leaders, partners and stakeholders to track progress in real time. This transparent feedback loop not only allows a community to constantly evaluate and enhance its system, it also creates shared accountability and buy-in across the entire housing placement system and encourages peer-to-peer learning and communication across communities within the initiative.

It is this type of transparent, real-time, person-specific data that will help communities optimize resources, improve multi-agency coordination and accelerate housing placements, ultimately bringing the goal of ending veteran and chronic homelessness over the next year and a half within reach.

In fact, the act of regularly capturing and transparently sharing data on the number of people being moved into housing has been shown to have an impact, even when data isn’t perfect. As the Urban Institute’s recently released evaluation of the 100,000 Homes Campaign concluded, transparent, monthly tracking and reporting is a critical practice of successful communities in the fight to end homelessness. According to the evaluation, 100,000 Homes communities that publicly tracked the number of people moving into housing each month against predetermined monthly targets on the Campaign’s website saw significantly greater reductions in homelessness than communities that neglected this measurement-based approach. Simply knowing whether a community was on track or not was enough to stimulate improvement.

As part of a commitment to using transparent and real-time data for improvement, the Zero: 2016 team recently released the first monthly report on the overall progress of the movement. This document provides a big picture overview of progress to date, highlights the bright spots, and helps us focus on opportunities for improvement. We will update and share this document on the Zero: 2016 webpage each month as a transparent feedback loop for the Zero: 2016 communities, so check back often for the latest updates on your community’s progress, and be sure to visit our Zero: 2016 resource page for helpful tools and trainings to help you on your path to zero.

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