Addressing chronic homelessness: Abilene, TX
- Accessing housing first: Strategies addressing chronic homelessness — that is, being without stable housing for over a year, and, often, suffering from a disabling condition— generally use a “Housing First” approach. Those experiencing chronic homelessness are connected with stable, unconditional housing. After housing is secured, residents are then connected to other services as needed, like mental health and substance use treatment.
- A mix of central locations and scattered sites: Unconditional, permanent supportive housing can be provided in various forms, including centralized facilities with services provided "in house," or in privately-owned units throughout a jurisdiction, where service providers visit tenants regularly. Initiatives in their early stages often rely more heavily on scattered sites as they work towards building larger, more centralized facilities.
- Signing leases and using a range of payment methods: Generally, tenants sign a standard rental agreement without conditions beyond those of any other renter (though income requirements are waived). Housing first initiatives typically include a major rental assistance component, which is typically subsidized by a range of sources, including federal housing vouchers (primarily Section 8 and related programs), local investments, private donations, and more. Those funds are applied either to a jurisdiction’s cost of operating a public facility or as a rent payment to a private landlord.
- Supplementing housing with social and medical services: Many "Housing First" strategies provide a range of on-site supports for tenants, including substance use treatment, mental and physical healthcare, career coaching, crisis intervention services, and more.
Multiple recent systematic reviews of rigorous scientific studies found that high-quality chronic homelessness prevention programs effectively reduced homelessness and increased housing stability.
- A 2018 systematic review of 43 RCTs found that case management housing programs were consistently effective at reducing homelessness and increasing the amount of time spent in stable housing.
- A 2018 systematic review of rigorous scientific studies found that relative to "treatment first" approaches, "Housing First" clients experienced, on average, an 88% decrease in homelessness, a 41% increase in housing stability, and a significant (ranging from 7%-36%) reduction in hospitalizations.
Results and accomplishments
Abilene homeless service providers functionally ended veteran homelessness in Abilene in 10 months.
Abilene homeless service providers functionally ended chronic homelessness in Abilene in roughly 12 months.
Abilene homeless service providers cut in half the length of time it takes to move a client from experiencing chronic homelessness into housing, from 188 to 95 days.
Led by Abilene Hope Haven, homeless service providers in Abilene prevented 63% of at-risk individuals from entering the homeless services system using diversion strategies.
- Ending chronic and veteran homelessness in Abilene: After joining the Built for Zero movement, Abilene functionally ended both veteran and chronic homelessness in less than a year. Abilene is one of three cities among Built for Zero’s 89 communities to have ended homelessness for both target populations.
- Changing the paradigm for police encounters: Prior to Abilene’s participation in the Built for Zero movement, police officers often arrested homeless residents in crisis. The Abilene coalition built a partnership with the police department, including securing help in conducting outreach efforts, that has fundamentally altered that dynamic. Instead of a jail-first approach, police officers now primarily call homeless service providers as a first response to an emergency.
- Reaching the Mayor’s goals - three times: In early 2018, Abilene Mayor Anthony Williams issued Abilene homeless service providers a 100-day challenge to house 50 of the city’s most vulnerable community members. With Built for Zero’s data-focused approach, the coalition outperformed the target, housing 64 community members. Mayor Williams later issued a challenge in late 2018 to end veteran homelessness in Abilene and another in 2019 to end chronic homelessness.
- Modeling diversion and prevention for Texas: Homeless service providers in Abilene have worked together to pilot a prevention and diversion program that the State of Texas is currently evaluating for statewide implementation. Between December 2018 and June 2021, Abilene Hope Haven successfully diverted 63% (173 of 273 documented cases) of at-risk individuals from entering the homeless response system.
For decades, Abilene had a small but persistent population of unhoused residents. In 2016, civic leaders began urging the city to find a solution that focused on housing and rehabilitation. To understand the scope of the problem, the City commissioned a study, which identified 329 homeless individuals in Abilene, including 217 school-age children and a significant number of veterans.
In 2018, the West Texas Homeless Network (WTHN) joined Built for Zero, a network of communities using a data-driven approach to address homelessness. As part of the network, WTHN and its partners received extensive technical support and a small grant from Community Solutions.
Working with the West Central Texas Regional Foundation and Abilene Hope Haven, WTHN first focused on addressing veteran homelessness before broadening scope to address chronic homelessness. Throughout, the service providers met with their Built for Zero coach to review a list of every person experiencing homelessness in the community and identify person-specific solutions. After a year, Abilene functionally ended both veteran and chronic homelessness.
Keys to the program’s success included support from City leaders, which legitimized the coalition’s efforts; a focus on using the evidence-based Housing First model; consistent outreach to the hardest to reach individuals experiencing homelessness, who might otherwise remain underserved; and the use of real-time, person-specific data to develop individualized strategies and track progress toward eliminating homelessness.
Challenges to the program’s success included some community members’ negative perceptions of homelessness, the persistence of child and family homelessness, and limited access to local funding.
What was the challenge?
- Persistent homelessness: For decades, Abilene, a city of roughly 125,000 residents, had a small but persistent population of unhoused residents, many of whom were minors or veterans, and a significant share of whom were chronically homeless. Some community members vocally pushed for increased policing as a solution, especially to address panhandling in the downtown business district.
- A community seeking action: Starting in early 2016, Abilene civic leaders, led by John Cooper, then-Executive Director of homeless service provider Abilene Hope Haven, urged local government leaders to find sustainable solutions focused on housing and rehabilitation, rather than incarceration. With Abilene home to a large Air Force base and veteran community, civic and public leaders were particularly motivated to implement housing-oriented interventions for homeless veterans.
- Study underscores need: With civic leaders increasingly calling for change, Abilene City Manager Robert Hanna commissioned a team of social workers at Abilene Christian University to conduct a needs assessment for the city’s homeless population. The team identified 329 homeless individuals in Abilene, including 217 school-age children. The study also identified a number of priorities to help house Abilene residents, including increasing access to permanent supportive housing for adults experiencing chronic homelessness.
- New standards from HUD: Just months after the Abilene Christian study was commissioned, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development updated its Coordinated Entry standards. In order to access federal funding, homeless service providers were required to follow standardized data collection processes, share data with other providers in the area, and more closely collaborate with one another on individual cases.
What was the solution?
- Abilene local homeless coalition joins Built for Zero: The West Texas Homeless Network (WTHN), the Abilene area’s HUD-recognized local homeless coalition, sought to implement a data-driven approach to more effectively address homelessness. This led the organization to join Community Solutions’ Built for Zero movement. After joining, Abilene first sought to end veteran homelessness, with the local effort led by the West Central Texas Regional Foundation (WCTRF) - Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF). Soon after, Abilene began the campaign to end chronic homelessness, which was led by Abilene Hope Haven.
- Built for Zero’s coaching and support: By joining the Built for Zero movement, WTHN partners gained access to Community Solutions’ technical assistance, which was delivered by a dedicated coach in weekly meetings. Abilene also joined the movement’s national network of communities working to end homelessness. Representatives from the 89 Built for Zero communities convene at least twice a year to share lessons learned and discuss best practices.
- Starting with verified data: The Built for Zero movement prioritizes robust data collection in the form of a “by-name” list of every person experiencing homelessness in the community. Participating providers create and update the lists by conducting in-person outreach to homeless individuals roughly twice per week, such as at tent encampments and downtown. Abilene Hope Haven maintains an updated by-name list of chronically homeless people, while WCTRF maintains the homeless veterans list.
- Regular meetings and real-time data: Every other week, homeless service providers and their Built for Zero coach in Abilene convene to update their by-name lists, discuss person-specific solutions to connect each client with stable housing, and track the effectiveness of previously used tactics. During this time, they also tackle procedural and systemic barriers, like challenges in acquiring the documents that clients need to apply for an available rental unit. Each case conference ends with setting a target move-in date for each person on the by-name list, along with clear next steps to achieve that goal.
- Connecting residents with housing: Between case conferences, service providers take action to “clear” the by-name lists by working to find housing for each person on it. For instance, at a case conference, a provider might note a new lead on an available unit. After the meeting, a staff member from Abilene Hope Haven works directly with an individual experiencing chronic homelessness to fill out the paperwork needed to apply for that unit. That same staff member connects with the landlord to inform them that the applicant has support from the organization and the financial resources necessary to pay rent.
What factors drove success?
- Real-time, person-specific data: By regularly collecting real-time, population-level data, Abilene’s local housing coalition can identify specific barriers and employ targeted strategies to house each person experiencing homelessness. Furthermore, prioritizing data collection and maintenance allows homeless service providers to more accurately track their progress toward eliminating homelessness in Abilene, and to identify any necessary additional resources (such as a staff member dedicated to conducting homeless outreach).
- Engaging with the hardest to reach: Some cities only succeed in housing the most visible individuals experiencing homelessness, such as those in a downtown business district. To ensure they truly eliminate homelessness, Abilene homeless service providers prioritize engagement with those considered the hardest to reach, such as individuals living in encampments in the woods. Nearly all staff members participate in in-person outreach. Staff conducts outreach efforts roughly twice per week.
- Building partnerships to enable coordinated outreach and entry: Abilene Hope Haven hired a dedicated outreach coordinator and built a partnership with the police department. By doing so, staff members and officers could direct people experiencing homelessness to the Coordinated Entry system for homeless services rather than the criminal justice system. By taking this approach, Abilene Hope Haven and other providers could deepen and better track their impact on the homeless population.
- Shifting to diversion and prevention: As Abilene works to sustain its functional zero achievements for chronic and veteran homelessness, it has shifted its focus to diversion and prevention, a less costly and highly effective method to ensure all residents remain housed. Such services include unit referrals for those at risk of eviction and assistance in completing forms to stay in housing. For instance, in numerous cases, individuals in Abilene have had the funds to pay rent, but simply need support in safely transferring them to their landlords.
- Prioritization from local leaders: Even without providing local funding, Mayor Anthony Williams of Abilene shed light on the city’s quest to end homelessness by issuing three 100-day challenges to house different homeless populations. By putting Abilene’s work to end homelessness in the public eye, city leaders helped to legitimize the effort to eliminate homelessness. This, in turn, instilled confidence in funders, like local foundations, and partners, like the Abilene Police Department.
- Using the Housing First model: Abilene’s local housing coalition, aligning with Built for Zero communities across the country, prioritized finding permanent housing in the private market for individuals experiencing homelessness. Providers funded such placements primarily with federal housing subsidies. By using the evidence-based Housing First approach, Abilene providers could help more residents remain stably housed for longer periods of time.
What were the major obstacles?
- Negative perceptions around homelessness: Some members of the business community in Abilene continue to call for more aggressive police action, rather than rehabilitative services. This is despite the fact that the 2017 Abilene Christian homeless needs assessment showed that police action would not address the needs of Abilene’s homeless population to secure stable housing.
- Ongoing child and family homelessness: While Abilene has achieved functional zero for its veteran and chronically homeless populations, the area still has a significant school-aged homeless population. Homeless service providers in Abilene are now dedicating their focus to achieving functional zero for children and families.
- Limited access to local public funding: While local government leaders, especially Mayor Anthony Williams, have been vocal supporters of Built for Zero in Abilene, the City of Abilene restricts use of federal CDBG funding to capital projects and has offered no other potential funding streams to provide local public funding for the Housing First model. As a result, homeless service providers remain reliant on philanthropic and federal grants (such as through the VA and HUD).
The Community Foundation of Abilene launches the Abilene Coalition for the Homeless, a network of community-based organizations and providers working to identify, engage, and serve individuals experiencing homelessness. The group later becomes the West Texas Homeless Network (WTHN), which facilitates coordination and collaboration among Abilene's homeless service providers.
After working with community providers to house 105,000 people as part of a national campaign between 2011-2014, Community Solutions uses the lessons learned from that experience to launch the Built for Zero movement. Over the next six years, 89 communities across the country adopt the Built for Zero approach to ending homelessness for specific populations.
HUD announces new requirements for local grant recipients to coordinate data collection, standardize entry assessments and housing matching, and prioritize delivery to those who are most vulnerable. In response, Abilene Hope Haven reaches out to fellow Abilene-area homeless service providers to develop more collaborative, data-driven strategies to address homelessness.
Abilene City Manager Robert Hanna commissions a team of social workers at Abilene Christian University to conduct a needs assessment for the city’s homeless population. The assessment calls for a significant expansion of homeless services, including dedicated outreach efforts, more affordable housing, and a prevention and diversion program.
In response to the Abilene Christian study, Mayor Williams issues a challenge to Abilene homeless service providers: house 50 individuals experiencing homelessness in 100 days. To achieve the goal, WTHN seeks external support, leading it to apply to the Built for Zero movement. WTHN is quickly accepted, thus gaining access to a small amount of funding and extensive non-financial resources, such as dedicated improvement coaches and access to a national network of cities sharing best practices. The Built for Zero approach proves effective, as WTHN providers house 64 residents in 100 days, exceeding the Mayor’s challenge.
Harnessing strong data collection, sharing, and analysis practices from the Built for Zero model, Abilene achieves and sustains functional zero for its veteran homeless population, becoming the sixth community to do so nationwide. The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness recognizes Abilene’s achievement, verifying that veteran homelessness in the area is “prevented whenever possible, or if it can’t be prevented, is a rare, brief and one-time experience.”
After achieving the chronic homelessness functional zero threshold in November, Abilene sustains that level for over a year, becoming the fourth community in the country to do so. Mayor Williams touts the Built for Zero approach, saying, “This achievement would not have been possible without the hard work of multiple organizations working together and the use of real-time data to identify each chronically homeless person in need of shelter and support.”
How did leaders confront the problem?
- Mixed public opinion on addressing persistent homelessness: For decades, Abilene, a city of roughly 125,000 residents, had a small but visible homeless population, especially in the downtown business district. While some activists and faith-based groups sought to expand homeless services, others, such as some members of the business community, increasingly pushed for police intervention to alter the status quo.
- Needs assessment highlights urgency: The City of Abilene, aware of the increasing tensions around how to address homelessness, commissioned a needs assessment of the area’s homeless population. The study, conducted by social workers at Abilene Christian University, identified several priorities to help house Abilene residents, including expanding permanent supportive housing for adults experiencing chronic homelessness.
- New HUD requirements incentivize collaboration: Just months after the needs assessment was commissioned, HUD released new Coordinated Entry requirements for providers receiving Continuum of Care funding, such as those in WTHN. As a result, Abilene homeless service providers began evaluating new coordination and collaboration models.
- Abilene joins Built for Zero movement: With a network of providers seeking to increase collaboration and the role of data in housing strategy and operations, Abilene Hope Haven and WCTRF joined Community Solutions’ Built for Zero movement. Abilene first launched a campaign to end veteran homelessness before running another targeted campaign addressing chronic homelessness.
How was the strategy designed?
- Prioritizing housing for residents experiencing homelessness: Using the Built for Zero model, Abilene homeless service providers connected residents with stable housing as quickly as possible, mostly in market-rate rental properties. The agencies worked together to discuss leads on housing, identify which provider should support which individual experiencing homelessness, and secure public housing subsidies for clients on an individual basis. Once residents were housed, providers worked with tenants and landlords to develop payment plans and other strategies to ensure they remained stably housed.
- A collaborative approach to end homelessness: In keeping with the Built for Zero model, Abilene launched a "command center," which unified efforts around homeless service delivery by creating a dedicated time and space for stakeholders to come together for case conferencing. Together, homeless service providers set and agreed to strategic goals and next steps to serve homeless residents. One partner, WCTRF, served as the lead agency for veteran homelessness. Abilene Hope Haven, served as the lead agency for chronic homelessness.
- A dedicated improvement coach: As part of the Built for Zero movement, Abilene was assigned an improvement coach for both its veteran and chronic homelessness campaigns. The coaches participated in case conferencing and provided technical assistance in implementing the Built for Zero model, especially data collection, goal-setting, and creative problem-solving.
- Collecting quality, real-time data: A core component of the Built for Zero model is the "by-name" list, a real-time, person-specific list of those at risk of or currently experiencing homelessness in a community. In Abilene, the by-name list for veterans was managed by WCTRF, while Abilene Hope Haven managed the list of chronically homeless individuals. Homeless service providers in Abilene used these lists to guide case conferencing agendas and to prioritize actions to house every person on the list.
How was the approach funded?
- Federal vouchers for veteran care: To cover the costs of existing veteran homeless case management and rapid rehousing, Abilene providers use vouchers from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program. Abilene currently uses nearly 200 vouchers to help house veterans.
- HUD grants to deliver rapid rehousing services: Abilene Hope Haven received $464,004 in 2019 and $498,192 in 2020 through a HUD Continuum of Care grant administered through the Texas Balance of State Continuum of Care. The funding supported Abilene Hope Haven’s work to provide residents with rapid rehousing and permanent supportive housing (including but not limited to housing chronically homeless individuals and homeless veterans).
- COVID funding for diversion and prevention: The United Way of Abilene secured $600,000 in federal CARES Act funding (CDBG-CV) that was, in practice, allocated toward prevention and diversion services. Those services were primarily administered by Abilene Hope Haven.
- Dedicated outreach coordinator: After identifying the need for increased coordination among homeless service providers and police officers, the United Way of Abilene, the Community Foundation of Abilene, and the Ballmer Group provided a total of $20,000 per year to fund a dedicated homeless outreach coordinator. That staff member works directly with the President of WTHN to ensure each partner optimizes outreach efforts. The position was initially funded with $15,000 from Community Solutions. The Community Foundation of Abilene further supported local homeless engagement and rapid rehousing efforts with a $25,000 gift to the West Texas Homeless Network (Abilene Hope Haven was the largest sub-recipient of these funds).
- Access to statewide data system: Through its partnership with the Texas Homeless Network, Abilene homeless service providers gained access to the HUD-funded Homeless Management and Information System (HMIS). The digital data system is used to coordinate case management, streamline referrals, and inform system design and policy decisions. The software also ensures each provider adheres to HUD’s updated Coordinated Entry requirements to retain eligibility for future federal funding. The Texas Balance of State Continuum of Care (representing smaller cities and rural communities across the state) received nearly $500,000 in 2019 and again in 2020 from HUD to build its HMIS. It is delivered to Abilene homeless service providers at no cost.
How was the plan implemented?
- Joining Built for Zero: Once Abilene officially joins Built for Zero, the lead providers are assigned dedicated improvement coaches. Weekly case conference begins shortly thereafter, during which time the coach provides strategic advice and technical assistance to all partners. Together, the partners and coach work through the by-name list, share relevant data, identify solutions, and assign actionable next steps. Some Abilene service providers also participate in learning sessions with other Built for Zero communities twice per year, providing an opportunity to share best practices and learnings.
- Building momentum to end homelessness across populations: As the Built for Zero model takes hold through case conferencing and data-informed problem-solving, homeless veterans in Abilene rapidly move into permanent homes. Homeless service providers use the by-name lists to prioritize cases, engage with landlords, ensure rent is paid with vouchers or other means, and stay in touch to help troubleshoot any problems that may arise.
- Clearing the “by-name” list: In order to maintain an accurate by-name list, partners conducted frequent outreach to collect data and identify potential leads that could connect homeless residents with stable housing. In Abilene, nearly all service provider staff members for the lead agencies participated in regular outreach for their target populations roughly twice each week.
- Setting a new goal: While achieving and sustaining functional zero for its homeless veterans within 10 months, Abilene starts the process again to address chronic homelessness. Both the veteran and chronic teams, which include some overlapping providers, continue to use the Built for Zero model, even as they sustain functional zero for both populations. Most of the providers are now working on a new goal: achieving functional zero for youth and families.
How was the approach measured and refined?
- Measuring homelessness in Abilene: The Built for Zero movement is driven by the pursuit of the “functional zero” threshold. Community Solutions defines the threshold as “a milestone that indicates a community has measurably ended homelessness for a population — and that they are sustaining that end.” Abilene reached that threshold and sustained it for over a year for both homeless veterans and chronically homeless individuals.
- Prioritizing valid data: Prior to joining Built for Zero, Abilene partners struggled to keep data up-to-date and accurate, especially in terms of contact information and previous interactions with the homeless entry system. Providers largely relied on an annual point-in-time count. By using Built for Zero’s by-name list approach, Abilene partners overhauled their data collection system, including hiring a dedicated outreach coordinator and meeting regularly to share and update data on homeless residents of Abilene.
- Meeting HUD requirements: As part of HUD’s updated Coordinated Entry requirements, recipients of Continuum of Care funding, such as Abilene Hope Haven, were required to standardize intake assessments and metrics used to determine who would receive priority services. The Built for Zero data model meets these requirements, allowing Abilene to dramatically improve its data capabilities while being compliant with the standards of key funders like HUD.
- Adding prevention and diversion: With nearly all key performance indicators showing rapid success in achieving and sustaining functional zero for veteran and chronically homeless residents, Abilene partners added a major new component to their strategy: stronger homeless diversion and prevention services, such as connecting individuals at risk of eviction with emergency rental assistance. Abilene received design assistance from Built for Zero Phoenix, which had successfully launched a similar program.
Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their help in completing this case study: Habiba Rotter and Anna Kim of Community Solutions; Alexzandra Hust of Abilene Hope Haven; Rosten Callerman of the West Texas Homeless Network; Jon Meier of the West Central Texas Regional Foundation (WCTRF) - Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF); and Mary Cooksy of Abilene United Way.