Every year, on the same day, thousands of volunteers across the United States set out to make a count of people experiencing unsheltered homelessness in their communities. John Meier, who works on veterans homelessness issues with the West Central Texas Regional Foundation, has often volunteered to help with the point-in-time count in Abilene, Texas, a city of 125,000 people about 200 miles west of Dallas.
“I always had a bad taste from doing it, because we’re approaching everybody on one day and asking questions, but we’re not really offering an opportunity,” Meier says. “It’s kind of like, ‘We want to count you and provide this data but we don’t want to offer any solutions from this event.’”
Over the last few years, though, service providers in Abilene, working under the auspices of the West Texas Homeless Network, have begun taking a much more granular approach to homelessness, building by-name lists of every unhoused person and working with each of them to find housing. That approach, part of the Built for Zero campaign, has started to pay off. In 2019, Abilene declared that it had reached “functional zero” for veteran homelessness, meaning that the number of veterans who become homeless each month is lower than the number that Abilene is able to house in a month — in other words, no veteran should remain unhoused for more than a month, at least in theory. Last year, the city also announced it had reached functional zero for chronic homelessness, becoming one of only a handful of cities — along with Rockford, Illinois, as Next City has covered — that have reached the milestone in both categories. Now, the group is turning its attention to youth and family homelessness.