Wal-Mart may be the most recognized retailer in the world. In the U.S. alone, the company has over 4,000 stores, and over 90% of Americans have shopped at one at some point in their lives.
Another thing you may not know about Wal-Mart is that, at any moment in time, the company can account for every single piece of inventory sitting on any of its millions of shelves worldwide.
That advantage turns out to be surprisingly important for the retail giant, which resupplies its stores on an almost nightly basis and rarely runs out of merchandise. The company uses real-time sales data to stock more of the items that sell and discontinue the items that don’t, and it makes these decisions with legendary efficiency, even across a supply chain that spans the entire world.
But what if Wal-Mart had a different strategy-- what if it only measured inventory one day a year? Things could go wrong quickly if that day turned out to be a slow one, or worse, Black Friday! The company would face obvious limitations if it made national restocking decisions based on anything other than actual, real-time sales data.
It’s not every day you see anti-poverty advocates emulating a giant corporation, but across the country, Built for Zero communities are taking a page out of Wal-Mart’s playbook to change the way they measure and track homelessness. By integrating daily street outreach with a Common Assessment Tool and a centralized database, communities are moving from extrapolated estimates informed by annual Point-in-Time (PIT) Counts to actual, person-specific data from a continuously updated by-name list of people experiencing homelessness on their streets.
By-name lists are a game changer in a community’s effort to end homelessness. They transcend statistical estimates and provide a comprehensive accounting for every person who is actually living on the streets. With a solid, constantly updated by-name list, community leaders can know exactly how many people are experiencing homelessness at any given time, along with their names, needs and circumstances. That means they can prioritize housing, track inflow, and make resource allocation decisions efficiently and in real time.
To understand why by-name lists are so groundbreaking, let’s look at the evolution in approaches to measuring homelessness over time:
For many years, communities have used the Point-in-Time Count (PIT) to measure progress in the fight to end homelessness. This annual count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless people is a federal requirement, intended to provide nationwide figures on the number of people experiencing homelessness each year and to aid the federal government in allocating the resources upon which communities depend. The count, which takes place during the last 10 days in January, is planned, coordinated, and carried out locally. This exercise has played an important function in laying a foundation and infrastructure for measurement in communities, but it was never intended to serve as the primary way that communities understand the nature and scope of local homeless populations. Given that this data is only collected once a year, it's widely variable and doesn't provide an accurate snapshot of how a community is progressing in ending homelessness. The anonymity of simply counting also makes it difficult to know who has been counted or what it might take to end their homelessness.
PIT data also doesn’t account for people who may fall into homelessness in the coming year, making it difficult to know if a community is on track to end homelessness or not. And while communities gather PIT data each January, the government typically can’t finish processing it until October or November. It goes without saying that it’s tough to understand the state of homelessness when the best data available is nearly a year old on the day it is released.
During the 100,000 Homes Campaign, in an effort to compensate for the PIT count’s limitations, many communities began using Take Down Targets to better understand what it would take to end homelessness in their communities. Think of a Take-Down Target as a combination of PIT data, local knowledge, and a historically based estimate for calculating inflow. It’s kind of like Wal-Mart saying, “Last holiday season was a big one, so we think this one might be pretty big, too.” Better than nothing, but not the best we can do, right?
Take Down Targets weren’t perfect, but they were a huge step forward from static yearly counts in measuring the state of homelessness because they allowed community leaders to account for additional people who may become homeless and who may have not been counted during the PIT. Additionally, these targets created a way for communities to set quantifiable goals and measure progress against those goals by tracking their monthly housing placements -- a practice proven to help communities increase the number of people being moved into housing.
But in an ideal world, community leaders working to end homelessness wouldn’t have to do any guesswork at all. Instead, they would know, in real time, exactly how many people are actually experiencing homelessness on their streets, just like Wal-Mart knows exactly what’s selling and where. That’s why it’s so exciting that many Built for Zero communities are making real-time data a reality by integrating a Common Assessment Tool (CAT) into their day-to-day street outreach and improving their outreach coverage.
The person-specific data collected through a CAT allows a community to produce a comprehensive, continuously updated by-name list of people experiencing homelessness for the first time. It also allows communities to begin tracking people all the way through the housing process. The upshot is that communities no longer need to make major decisions based on imperfect PIT data or Take-Down Target estimates. At any moment, they can pull a real-time snapshot of everyone experiencing homelessness on their streets and update their strategy to get those people what they need. Communities can also estimate inflow based on actual data from previous months, rather than static, year-over-year data and national statistics.
Built for Zero communities are embracing the sector’s iterative evolution toward better data and showing for the first time what it looks like to end homelessness rigorously and verifiably. Progress on that front is rooted in the constant improvement of systems and practices -- from static annual counts to algorithmic projections, to live, person-specific, real-time data. This progress, driven by learning and improvement, will help push us forward in our efforts to veteran and chronic homelessness, as well as homelessness among families, youth and all other populations across the country.