What does ‘Functional Zero’ mean in relation to homelessness?

The origins of 'Functional Zero' in relation to homelessness and its use in Australia

21 January 2020

Functional Zero is a definitional, accounting tool designed to measure whether government services responses to homelessness are keeping pace with increases in homelessness. A program was launched in Adelaide in 2018 aimed at achieving Functional Zero homelessness in Adelaide’s central business district (CBD) by 2020.

The Functional Zero concept originated in the USA where it aims to use accurate ‘real-time, person-specific data’ on individuals who are experiencing homelessness to measure the overall success of community programs to reduce homelessness. As such, Functional Zero is useful for managing and understanding the effectiveness of (often limited) resources directed at specific target groups.

In essence Functional Zero is when the number of new people (usually from a defined group of people such as military veterans or ex-wards of the state) using homelessness services (such as shelters etc.) in any specified time period (e.g. each month) and in a specified region (e.g. a town, city or state) is less than or equal to the number of people who exit homelessness through being housed or leaving the region (or dying).

The benefits of implementing a Functional Zero program is that it ‘provides a way to bring cross-sector organisations together to focus on a common goal.’ In the case of the Adelaide CBD program, over 40 not-for-profits, government agencies, private organisations and service providers have committed to ending street homelessness in the inner city. The intention is that by using real-time data to track and improve performance and by involving the community in solutions to end homelessness, organisations will adopt those practices that support the most efficient allocation of resources to achieve results.

Functional Zero is usually applied to a defined group—often one that can be readily identified and mapped to see if people in that group are in fact leaving homelessness. In the USA it is often applied to homeless ex-military veterans as they can be encouraged to self-identify using their service ID number every time they use resources from a homelessness service provider. For groups of more disparate people who are experiencing homelessness, Functional Zero is administratively much more difficult to manage.

However, Functional Zero doesn’t mean that there are no longer any people experiencing homelessness in the region, it just means that the numbers of a specific group of people who are experiencing homelessness hasn’t increased in a region.

Critics of the term Functional Zero suggest that by using the word ‘Zero’ policy makers and practitioners may believe that homelessness is a no longer an issue for their community.