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2023 AHAR Communications Toolkit

November 22, 2023

This resource aims to provide leaders of Built for Zero with guiding questions to develop a communications strategy on how to respond to the 2023 Annual Homeless Resource Assessment release and create an ongoing data communications strategy. 

Please contact with any questions.

Tables of Contents


Key Messages

Strategic Guidance

Social Media Toolkit

Earned Media Toolkit

Data Visualization Toolkit


The release of any community’s Point-in-Time Count is likely to dominate a region’s news coverage and set narratives of whether a community is making progress on solving homelessness. The incomplete story that is often told by journalists, influential local stakeholders, and constituents can often generate significant attention, but often in a way that does not support a community’s progress. 

It is critical for local leaders to maintain the public’s confidence that they understand the problem, that there are bright spots, and to be clear on where support can accelerate and overcome local challenges. Without public confidence in the community’s leaders, and possibility of progress:

  • Community leaders lose will for the support they need to reduce and end homelessness
  • Demand rises for immediate action to address the visible presence of homelessness, rather than investment in the permanent, humane, and effective solutions
  • Political leaders succumb to pressures from the public, often reaching for immediate action that may not support, or even undermine, the solutions that are needed

On the other hand, when local narratives are grounded in a true understanding of the state of homelessness, the challenges alongside the solvability of the problem, and a sense of progress, they can generate the political patience and support needed to sustain a systems approach to reducing and ending homelessness. 

The Point-in-Time count release is a critical moment to not just mitigate against the harms of an incomplete or inaccurate narrative that undermines local efforts, but to affirmatively advance understanding and a clear narrative that supports their ability to solve the problem. 

We also recognize that, in addition to a Point-in-Time Count specific strategy, there is a system of regular communication to key stakeholders about the state of homelessness that can ensure the narrative locally is complete, actionable, and contextualized. 

Bright Spots:

Once the data is released, we will update this section with specific bright spots. Take a moment to reflect on your data and progress since the Point-In-Time count. Make note of any bright spots or specific actions taken. 

About the count:

The Annual Homeless Assessment Report is based on Point-In-Time estimates. 

  • This “snapshot” count of people experiencing homelessness was conducted on a single night in January. Imagine it like a photo of a single moment. 
  • These national counts provide valuable data for policymaking and research. However, we can’t gather the necessary information to house people by counting them only once a year, especially when communities are only required to do an unsheltered count every other year. 
  • There are people moving in and out of homelessness over the course of a year. That’s why communities can work year-round to house thousands of people but still have a rise in overall homelessness. 
  • To get a clear picture, we need more than a one-night snapshot. 

About real-time data:

In [community name] we are committed to measuring homelessness in real time. 

  • We work to maintain a list of every person experiencing homelessness. Using information collected and shared with their consent, each person on the list has a file that includes their name, homeless history, health, and housing needs. 
  • This helps us make data-driven decisions, prioritize resources, and ensure we leave no one behind. 

We may see an increase in homelessness when we commit to better data collection. 

  • As our picture becomes clearer, we prepare for an initial rise in numbers. This isn’t a setback; it’s a crucial phase in our journey. Understanding the full scale and complexity of homelessness is essential to developing truly effective solutions.
  • By dedicating ourselves to identifying each person experiencing homelessness, we often unveil a deeper truth — there are more individuals in need than we ever anticipated. This isn’t just about counting heads; it’s about recognizing our neighbors and bringing them home. 

Solving homelessness takes making the invisible visible and bringing our collective efforts and resources to meet the challenge it presents. 

  • Data is the path to making sure that neighbors who have been invisible are visible and receive the support they need. 
  • It creates accountability for ensuring that systems are driving toward zero and producing equitable outcomes along the way. 
  • It ensures that critical investments, like affordable housing, are connected to those needing it. 

Lessons learned from COVID:

As federal programs and supports created during COVID-19 ended, we anticipated a rise in homelessness. 

  • Overall, the number of people accessing shelters declined from 2019 to 2021 (based on point-in-time counts in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Annual Homelessness Assessment Report to Congress).  
  • Federal COVID relief interventions, such as increased funding for and expansion of Housing Choice Vouchers, Emergency Rental Assistance, and eviction moratoria at the federal, state, and local levels, could have also helped to keep people housed and less likely to need shelter.
  • The success of these programs proves that homelessness is a problem we can solve when resources align with community needs. 

Housing supply:

We need more homes, all shapes and sizes, for all our neighbors. 

  • Rents and mortgages are increasing faster than income and earnings. This creates a number of financial and social pressures that affect us all.
  • When people fall into homelessness, they need access to housing. Many also need wrap-around services to help get their lives back on track. 

If your team hasn’t released your 2023 PIT data, create a proactive plan to be ready for the 2023 AHAR release.

Defining Objectives, Audience and Success Measures 

  1. How can communications remove barriers or accelerate our progress toward our goal?

Common challenges that communications can help address may include:

  1. Lack of awareness of community strategy, efforts, progress, or needs
  2. Misunderstanding of community strategy, efforts, or needs
  3. Lack of community or political will to support community efforts
  1. Who is our audience? Whose behavior and understanding, if changed, could help remove barriers or accelerate our progress toward our goal?
  • Who is your audience? Who is one actor or stakeholder group that we need to behave, think, and engage differently in order to make progress?
  • What is their current behavior? We should understand their present state so we can understand the improvement or change we would like to see. Are they misinformed? Are they disengaged? How are their behaviors helping or hindering progress?
  • What is the desired behavior? Examples may be:
    • Understand what we’re trying to achieve
    • Align behind our shared aim
    • Participate in local improvement efforts
  • What motivates them? How can we understand their aspirations and what motivates their behavior and beliefs?

Please find examples below, or use the framework to identify your own target audiences:

Audience mapping framework example

Homeless service providers Unaware, misinformed, or disengaged from the community’s Built for Zero workUnderstand the community aims and approach and behave as key partners
Journalists Unaware, or misguided, in their focus on the problems needing to be solved, efforts underway, or progress Accurately educate the public in a way that creates accountability for actions that would support progress
Local electeds Motivated to pacify the public, but disconnected from solutions needed to drive actual reductionsServe as messengers and champions for needs identified by local leaders, amplify progress, and educate constituents on what is being done

Audience deep dive example

AUDIENCEAn influential local journalist 
CURRENT BEHAVIORReporting informed and shaped by wrong local stakeholders; misunderstanding what Built for Zero is; analysis of what the PIT count results illustrate is lacking, incomplete, or misleading; aims of the community are regularly misunderstood or misrepresented; focus on crisis rather than the progress that community is making
DESIRED BEHAVIORAccurately report on local Built for Zero efforts; define functional zero aims correctly; come to an informed set of stakeholders to fact-check and guide reporting
BARRIERUrgency, existing relationships, lack of education on system-wide efforts, overreliance on a certain group of sources
WHAT MOTIVATES THEM?Urgent timelines, access, readership clickability, clarity; a compelling story

How are you going to define success?

Objective Examples:

  • Be seen as the go-to source for homelessness in the region 
  • Contextualize the Point-in-Time Count, reflecting what it tells us and what it does not
  • Highlight a more comprehensive, accurate, and up-to-date understanding of the state of homelessness
  • Amplify proof that the community is making progress in many regards
  • Articulate challenges and solutions that would help the community overcome them 

Measurement Examples: 

  • % of media stories that engaged local system leaders to shape the local story
  • # of stories that amplify proof of progress, within broader stories about challenges and increases
  • # of stories that create space for solutions that would help the community make more progress
  • # of stories that accurately convey the degree to which the Point-in-Time count can represent the current and whole picture of homelessness within the community

Developing Localized Core Messages

Write a localized key message that:

  • Highlight the community’s progress on solving homelessness (examples: population-level reductions, sustaining functional zero, achieving real-time, by-name data, joining Built for Zero, etc.)
  • Provide broader context about local challenges and contributing factors for any PIT population-level increases
  • Outline the solutions that would help the community make more progress
  • Explain the degree to which the Point-in-Time count can represent the current and whole picture of homelessness within the community

Next, identify and equip community-wide spokespeople with key messages. Who do the media go to for interviews? Are they informed of your work? Do they know your core messaging or to divert media requests to you? Are all key voices in your community equipped with the core messages and data?

Push your core messages out through targeted platforms (earned media and social media toolkits linked below)

Social Media Toolkit

Earned Media Toolkit

Data Visualization Toolkit