When It Comes to Ending Homelessness, What Does 'Functional Zero' Really Mean?

"The idea of the word ‘functional’ in front of ‘zero’ is a reaction to the misperception that ending homelessness means no one ever experiences homelessness again."

June 16, 2021, 10:00 AM PDT

By rkaufman

People experiencing homelessness

Richard Thornton / Shutterstock

On January 6 of this year, Bakersfield and Kern County, California, announced that they had reached a milestone known as “functional zero” for chronic homelessness. The narrowly defined term meant that the coalition of service providers in the area had found housing for virtually everyone in the community who had both a disabling condition and had experienced homelessness for more than a year, and that it was prepared to quickly house anyone else who entered chronic homelessness going forward. A week later, the Bakersfield Californian published a letter to the editor from a resident who noted that homelessness was still clearly visible in the city, and that with respect to officials’ claims about ending chronic homelessness, “none of this aligns with empirical evidence.” A few weeks after that, the Continuum of Care conducted the annual point in time count, which showed a substantial increase in people living on the street from the year before.

Clearly, homelessness has not ended in Bakersfield. So what does it mean to reach “functional zero” for a certain segment of the homeless population, and how significant is the achievement? For Bakersfield and other cities that have signed onto the “Built for Zero” campaign, it’s a balance between celebrating milestones that suggest ending homelessness is possible, and being clear about how much work remains before that ultimate goal can be reached.

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