Built for Zero Starter Kit

This guide is a high-level overview of Built for Zero’s community theory of change and a collection of resources and tools that have been important to Built for Zero communities’ success in reducing homelessness. Your community can use the resources in this guide to get started today on making improvements to your local system. This is not a comprehensive guide to the Built for Zero model nor a comprehensive list of all of the tools that Built for Zero communities use in their work to end homelessness, but rather a kit to kickstart your work using this model. 

The core of the Built for Zero model rests on building an effective and resilient homeless prevention and response system that catalyzes broader ecosystem changes necessary to sustain and scale results. We have identified key foundational areas that communities successful in reducing homelessness have strengthened in their system and cultures of working that are critical to their success. These foundations and new ways of working position a community to implement multiple strategies to equitably achieve significant reductions in the number of people experiencing homelessness and eventually make homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring for everyone.

When you feel ready to get started improving your system with the Built for Zero model, our recommendation is for senior level leadership to review this entire page and then assemble collaborative teams to delegate aspects of this work to within your community. We’ve provided guidance in each section on who we recommend to include in the conversation for each change area.

If you have any questions about these resources, please reach out to bfznetwork@community.solutions


  • The leaders in your community commit to a shared aim.
    • An aim might look like this: “By December 31, 2025, our community will reach functional zero for veterans.” Or this: “By August 31 of 2024, our community will achieve a 50% reduction in actively homeless chronic individuals.”
  • Your shared aim is reflected in policies, procedures, and strategic plans.
  • You have buy-in from a broad group of stakeholders in the community — including community leaders and new partners beyond direct service providers — and these stakeholders are actively supporting the shared aim, and sharing accountability for its success.


  • Read this resource:

Why Set an Aim? 

The first step to solving homelessness is having a shared definition of what we are trying to achieve. A frequent issue in community efforts is that everyone defines success differently, which makes it impossible to assess the effectiveness of different strategies or to know when a goal has been accomplished. And oftentimes, funding is awarded based on the performance of individual housing programs and not on whether a community collectively reduces homelessness. This makes the motivations and metrics of success different for each individual program, and in some cases, can even keep people unhoused longer. Single programs don’t get us to zero — whole communities working together do. In Built for Zero, communities set a community-level aim, and success is ultimately measured by the total number of people experiencing homelessness, not by program outcomes alone. Data enables communities to rapidly test new ideas and understand if all of their collective efforts are adding up to less homelessness overall. This requires coordination between all of the different programs and service providers in a community, collectively agreeing on an end state together, and determining together how they can collaborate to achieve that end state. Setting a goal across an entire community allows providers to move away from thinking about “my clients,” and instead consider a more holistic “our clients”. 
Built for Zero communities use the rigorous standard of “functional zero” to set an end state to homelessness in their community. We’ve found that communities who set ambitious goals for themselves get further than they would have otherwise, even if they ultimately don’t meet their goal, because they are forced to think creatively and redesign their systems.

Audience: Senior Leaders like CoC Board Members, Executive Directors, and HMIS Administrators should lead with setting an aim, and they should socialize that aim broadly with all providers in the community.

Socialize your aim broadly across your community



  • Key partners in your coalition represent a broad and diverse set of interest holders at different levels.
  • Key partners in your coalition represent the communities of individuals most impacted by homelessness.
  • The coalition has added partners with the assets/resources needed to fill gaps or expand efforts 
  • There is a sufficient mix of partners – folks with political sway or access to funding as well as partners who are on the frontlines of implementing changes – to strengthen all levels of the system.
  • Key partners are actively participating in governance, planning, and implementation.


  • Read this resource to understand stakeholder mapping.

What is a stakeholder analysis, and why should you use one? 

A stakeholder analysis can help you identify the key players in your system, and understand your relationship to those stakeholders and how to improve collaboration, coordination, and resource-sharing. We’ve found that communities who have a strong sense of the web of relationships in their homeless response systems can better leverage resources and affect change with the help of others in their system. 

The Harvard Business School describes this process, sometimes known as “power mapping,” as follows: “Stakeholder mapping is essential if you’re hoping to become a change-maker in your organization. Identifying the most influential players in your workplace is crucial if you’re trying to make a positive impact. Power only exists within the dynamics of a relationship, so you must determine who’s already close to powerful individuals, who’s underappreciated but essential to your organization, and who has the most influence.

Stakeholder mapping is an effective way to diagnose your organization’s political landscape. It allows you to identify its values by examining the behaviors it rewards. This can be particularly valuable if you’re just starting in your role. By identifying influential individuals, you can build your network, establish valuable relationships, determine what resources they value, and cultivate power and influence.”

This deck lays out how Built for Zero coaches walk through a stakeholder mapping exercise with their teams.

Audience: Anyone at any level of the system can use these tools! When using this resource, keep it focused around the objective that you’re trying to accomplish, and identify and define stakeholders based on who you need to get the job done. 

Coordinated and collaborative action


  • Coalition partners collaboratively create and enact system-level joint policies and programs to increase system alignment.
  • Coalition partners collaborate on joint funding applications and resource development to expand system resources and capacity.
  • Collaborative programmatic efforts extend beyond the core homeless response team to system-level and cross-sector collaboration.
  • Coalition partners create new, unified, and integrated initiatives and programs to address local priorities.
  • Coalition partners contribute to system-wide data to identify issues, generate solutions, and raise awareness.
  • Communication mechanisms and feedback loops across partners ensure that information is shared and transparent to partners.
  • Coalition partners change their own organizational policies and practices to align with shared standards, policies, and measures.


  • Read these resources to learn more about effective collaboration within homeless response systems.

The Who & How of Collaboration 

A key implementation principle of BFZ’s model for building a strong and resilient homeless response system is that efforts must be collaborative across organizations, systems, and sectors. Collective systems change requires coordination and collaboration with a broad range of partners that both directly and indirectly interact with homeless response systems. Moving beyond building strong relationships with individual partners and ensuring broad partnerships across your system, the ultimate goal is to work toward alignment, integration, and the external conditions that shape communities ability to end homelessness. 

An effective homeless response system requires alignment and integration among partners working towards a shared goal. Alignment refers to coordination and consistency between programs and providers to achieve common objectives. It involves establishing shared vision, linking complementary services, agreeing on outcomes and measures, and maintaining open communication. In contrast, integration refers to consolidating programs, providers, funding, data systems, and policies into more unified, seamless systems and processes so clients experience services as interconnected rather than

isolated. Key aspects of integration include merging systems into a unified whole with consolidated access points, shared data and funding, and streamlined frameworks and processes. Coordination and collaboration are important for facilitating alignment and integration. Coordination promotes organized connections between efforts by enabling alignment through common goals and mapping where coordination already exists, and where gaps need to be closed. Collaboration builds relationships and trust, identifies consolidation opportunities, and develops unified frameworks and integrated governance—bringing programs, organizations, and systems into closer convergence and integration. Coordination aligns, collaboration integrates, and both help connect fragmented efforts into more synergistic, gap-free holistic social service provision.

At this more advanced level of coordination & alignment, successful communities have learned a few key things: 

  1. Many communities described concerted efforts to build collaborative infrastructure, including governance and working groups, at the system level. 
  2. Leadership matters– both at the direct engagement & system change levels. Communities are more effective when people leading improvement work are embedded in the CoC, are dedicated FTE, and have the appropriate skill sets to lead and execute improvement work. 
  3. Communities sought to align frameworks, policies, and processes across the system, usually in the form of standardized processes or program requirements. 

Audience: Senior leaders should read and internalize these resources to ensure that these results are embedded in decision-making and alignment across all levels of their systems. System leaders should socialize these ideas with funders, political figures, and cross-sector partners.

Coordinate and align processes


  • Staff understand your system and are able to successfully navigate across agencies to find resources and meet the needs of clients.
  • Your community has decreased duplicative practices and implemented case conferencing and coordinated entry practices.
  • Clients are housed more quickly with less confusion and are offered more access to relevant services.
  • Outreach is aligned and comprehensive across partners.
  • Partnerships deepen trust and engagement and develop a sense of shared accountability and will to solve homelessness.
  • Partner collective and individual actions are mutually-reinforcing toward the shared aim of solving homelessness.


Audience: Organizing this work must be done by someone who has power or influence to change practices and coordinate with partners. A CoC’s senior leaders are likely the right place to start here, and those folks will be responsible for delegating this culture of collaboration throughout their system.


  • There are dedicated staff to implement system improvement functions (system change efforts, data, DEI, resource development, etc.). 
  • There is sufficient full-time program staff to deliver services effectively. 
  • Staff are equipped with needed skills and expertise (e.g., system improvement, collaboration, data use, etc.). 
  • There is sufficient funding to maintain adequate staffing levels at program and system levels. 
  • Staff satisfaction and retention is high.


  • Read this resource:

The Homeless Response System (HRS) staffing theory is a collection of frameworks that communities can leverage to help inform building and developing system improvement capacity. The goal of this staffing theory is to support communities in getting “fully staffed,”  which will look different for every community in terms of number of staff, the division of responsibilities, where in a community staff are hosted, etc. The staffing theory proposes a community is “fully staffed” when it can effectively execute key functions that are critical for system improvement, regardless of community characteristics. This slide deck has more information about this theory and how to use the below job descriptions to ensure that your team is fully staffed.

Audience: Senior leaders who have influence in writing job descriptions, hiring, and overseeing overall capacity in your system. 


  • One organization in your system that has decision-making authority and influence on funding and policy serves as the backbone of your coalition.
  • A leadership team is convened regularly that shares accountability and sets priorities for the community.
  • Working groups meet regularly to plan process changes, programs, and tests of change (aligned with your community’s shared aim). 
  • Structures for accountability are in place, including:
    • the system’s leadership team presenting results out to the community
    • commitment to a strategic framework 
    • an established implementation plan


  • Read this resource to understand our guiding principles of our backbone model.

What is a backbone structure, and why is it useful in homelessness response spaces? 

In our work with communities, we have learned that homelessness response systems often suffer from fragmentation and silo-ing across their systems. This stems from multiple different root causes: CoC geographies are often non-uniform and cut across other funding or programmatic boundaries (for example, CoC geographies and VA areas rarely perfectly align). Data management is not interoperable across systems, geographies or programs, nor is the data itself of equal comprehensiveness, quality or reliability. Stakeholders have different definitions of success and ways of measuring progress giving way to competing narratives on how to tackle the issue. As a result, regional and local actors suffer from poor line of sight into homelessness, competing incentives, inadequate tools for determining whether various efforts, resources and policy decisions are adding up to population-level results, and the tendency to focus on quick and narrow wins that can’t be sustained in the long-term. 

The backbone team model attempts to solve these issues by situating leaders to act as a place-based backbone team to vertically align efforts to end homelessness, local to regional, and prove that homelessness is solvable. The role of this team is to help maintain overall strategic coherence, to coordinate and manage the day-to-day operations and implementation of work,  stakeholder engagement, communications, data collection and analysis. 

Backbone: structures comprised of a single or multiple organizations that fulfill several core functions and facilitate action and accountability across place-based partnerships.

Place-based partnerships: networks of people and organizations in the same geographic area who work together to change systems, improve community outcomes, and achieve shared goals.

In the best of circumstances, these backbone organizations embody the principles of adaptive leadership: the ability to focus people’s attention and create a sense of urgency, the skill to apply pressure to stakeholders without overwhelming them, the competence to frame issues in a way that presents opportunities as well as difficulties, and the strength to mediate conflict among stakeholders.


  1. Community Engagement and Network Building
    • Convene partners around a community level indicator to use a continuous improvement process to improve that indicator.
    • Necessary partners for the necessary conversations – ie. not everyone at every meeting, inclusive of the right stakeholder voices for the topic.
    • Manages the logistics of a partner network such as documenting notes, scheduling meetings, creating agendas, etc.
    • Waste No Will: Offers a path for the broader community to engage the strategy – ie. the congregation group that wants to volunteer or the business improvement district that is wanting to improve their block.
    • Visualizes the relationship of backbone and partners, staffing and supports.
  2. Visioning and Goal Setting
    • The backbone team works together with the Steering Committee to provide data, prioritize opportunities for action, and adapt to changing context and systems in the overall vision and strategy of the effort. 
    • It is critical that the backbone prioritizes equity in its efforts to guide the vision and strategy, thereby ensuring that Steering Committee and working group members keep equity at the center of their strategies and actions.
    • Long-term and short-term milestones, aims and drivers are mapped out and made public to partners who understand and see themselves in the strategy
    • The backbone team can articulate the various layers of support needed and offered.
    • Relevant strategic plans at external organizations or governments align with the backbone’s vision and goal setting wherever possible.
  3. Partnership Coordinations and Communications
    • Meeting not just for the sake of meeting – time together has an agenda, clear objectives, starts with data and notes are shared out afterwards with action steps.
    • Meeting representation is the right amount of partners at the right time – ie. not 10 people from org. A with one from org. B.
    • Information is communicated up and down organizations – ie. clarity on what are the takeaways to teams or leaders.
    • Develop a set of key messages about the partnership and communicate them regularly to internal partners and the broad community.
    • Release an annual report card to the community that effectively communicates the importance and meaning of the data for each of the partnership’s community-level outcomes.
  4. Fund Development and Resource Alignment
    • Resources are mapped to organizations and funders in a consistent manner – ie. you know who is funded, for what.
    • Gaps are identified through qualitative and quantitative data – ie. trends in an underserved population are rooted in data, eg. 25% increase in seniors in 6 months.
    • Funds are pursued and supported broadly – ie. don’t let the application pass by, someone has to apply.
    • Funders and philanthropy shift accountability toward the backbone’s strategic outcomes – ie. non-HUD resources go through coordinated entry, and/or oriented towards permanent housing deliverables.
    • The backbone org. receives capacity building funding for staff, not just service provider orgs. -ie. Improvement coaches and data analysts v. case managers.
  5. Measuring Community-Level Impact
    • Data is relevant and timely – ie. moving away from the PIT as the primary local data source.
    • Data is shared and drives decisions – ie. definitions of success, and ultimate outcomes are shared across communities.
    • Data is visible – performance measures and outcomes, no matter how they look, are available publicly.
    • Data is supported – backbone trains and supports partnership and network members in the process of using data for continuous improvement. 
    • Leverage evaluation and data-oriented partners (universities, healthcare, local evaluators) as objective leaders in asking critical learning questions.
  1. Focus on Equity 
    • The backbone staff must begin its commitment to equity and inclusion by examining its own internal practices, structures, and staff—paying great attention to equity and intersectionality. The backbone’s authenticity and credibility in the community related to issues of equity depend on this “equity mirror” to examine its internal operations.
    • The backbone staff play a critical role by helping their system ask the questions:
      • How do we effectively integrate community voice into institution-heavy collective impact efforts?
      • How do we authentically and meaningfully involve communities who have historically been excluded from decision-making processes?
      • How do we engage stakeholders in sensitive conversations about race, class, and culture without driving away those who need to sit at the problem-solving table?
  2. Organizing and Advocacy for Systems Change
    • May include direct lobbying on local, county, State or Federal policy addressing homelessness and housing.
    • Advocating with and bringing partner organizations to decision-making tables.
    • Incorporating voices of lived experience of homelessness as systems change advocates.
    • Open to utilizing all levers of change to obtain the win: grassroots, relational, media, political, funder-driven.
    • Gathering policy examples from other communities and backbones nationally working on similar strategies, or a collective advocacy agenda.

A backbone organization needs to ensure all of these necessary functions are fulfilled, but is not necessarily the entity to fulfill all of the functions. It is their responsibility to delegate and coordinate to ensure these functions are being fulfilled. Our theory is that all of these functions are necessary for effective homelessness response systems. We have found that backbone organizations are one way to effectively package these functions, but not the only way.

Audience: We recommend senior leaders in your community review these resources and discuss them as a group. This is a fairly sophisticated structure within most communities, but by knowing that this is the end goal for organizational structure, we hope you’re able to set up systems that will eventually complement this methodology.


  • There is a collaborative governance team/executive board that governs collaborative efforts, makes strategic decisions, promotes shared accountability, and sets strategic vision and priorities for the coalition.
  • Governance group tracks and communicates progress and results to the community, and key interest holders to promote transparency and accountability.
  • There are meaningful mechanisms regularly used for soliciting input and feedback from interest holders and communicating its use in decision-making and implementation.
  • There are high-functioning working groups or improvement teams who implement programs, interventions, and processes to execute strategic priorities.
  • The coalition adopts a shared strategic framework and implementation plan to guide system efforts and partners adopt/align to it in their own efforts.
  • Governance and implementation teams are meaningfully representative and inclusive of the interest holders impacted.


  • Read this resource:

Background: A Structure Designed for Zero 

Since 2015, Community Solutions has sought to identify and replicate operational components among Built for Zero (BFZ) communities, regions, and states that are working to drive an end to homelessness. From our work, we have learned that effective governance structures with coordinated elements are necessary to achieve results. Building from these learnings, and through multidimensional research and formal evaluative efforts, we have developed a community-level Theory of Change that describes the key elements of an effective response. A strong governance structure should be able to facilitate the implementation and coordination of these key elements.

Audience: We recommend senior leaders in your community review these resources and discuss as a group. This is a fairly sophisticated structure within most communities, but by knowing that this is the end goal for organizational structure, we hope you’re able to set up systems that will eventually complement this methodology. 


  • A system-wide digital infrastructure serves to collect, store, analyze, and share by-name data (person-level data) across partners.
  • Your community has a comprehensive list of by-name data that
    • is shared across partners 
    • is reliable
    • is being informed by a coordinated outreach process 
    • allows for reporting and visualization tools for analysis 
    • includes previously under-identified individuals
    • includes demographic and case management information which can be disaggregated by key characteristics
  • Your community has sufficient data capacity/skills among teammates. 
  • Your data processes and policies are clearly documented and adhered to across your system.


Audience: Frontline staff, folks who are entering data into HMIS, CES leads, HMIS administrators, and data analysts/data leads.

Data-informed practice and continuous system improvement


  • There is a culture of learning and improvement in your community across partners, making your system nimble and responsive.
  • Your coalition uses by-name data to prioritize services and placements based on vulnerability, facilitate real-time service matching, and problem-solve individual cases.
  • Your coalition uses data, data visualizations, and other evidence to problem-solve strategies and drive strategic decisions about programs/services beyond case conferencing.
  • Your coalition regularly, publicly, and transparently communicates changes and progress toward their aim to community stakeholders.
  • Your coalition pilot tests new interventions or approaches before full-scale adoption or as proof of concept.
  • Your community has ongoing feedback loops with individuals experiencing homelessness that inform changes to practices and processes.


Audience: QI should be embedded in every level of your system, from senior leadership decision-making to frontline staff processes. However, we’ve seen most communities use this most immediately and effectively at the frontline service delivery level. QI can be a great way to empower frontline workers to test ideas and make changes that improve service delivery.


  • Your community’s improvement team explicitly maps out important system components to answer the questions:
    • Where are the resources?
    • Who holds power?
    • Where is funding available?
    • Where are services available?
    • Which partners are currently supportive of the aim to make homelessness rare, brief, and non-recurring?
  • With this information, your community understands the steps in your system’s flow and resources available, and finds opportunities to fill gaps and test possible improvements.


  • Read these resources to learn about process mapping.

As a system, we all have the shared goal of ending homelessness. However, our current system hasn’t gotten us there — yet. 

In order to figure out how to get to our end destination (zero homelessness), we have to have a really good understanding of our system as it currently works. This will help us identify areas for improvement and measure changes to see if they make an improvement. 

A process map is a great way to begin to understand how all of the different areas of your system are working together, gather data and expertise from all across your system, and connect dots that weren’t previously connected. Process mapping is gathering all of the frontline and system workers in your community to tell you, “this is how our system works right now.” From there, your community will be able to take a step back, make note of what’s working, and identify areas where you have gaps and could improve services. 

You can create a process map of all different areas in your system, but one of the best and easiest places to start is your coordinated entry system. The goals of coordinated entry system process mapping are: 

  1. To obtain a qualitative and quantitative understanding of how your system works, told both by data and the people who have the most expertise of your system and are closest to the problems. 
  2. To work as a team to make the housing process as easy and efficient as possible for unhoused folks. 
  3. To spot silos or gaps in your system where folks may not be communicating or coordinating well, and solve for those. 
  4. Streamline the process to remove barriers and burdens for any and all providers and organizations involved in the housing process. 
  5. Understand how long each step is taking (ex: identification to assessment; or assessment to referral), so that we can use that data for improvement. 
  6. Jointly design and test solutions/improvement ideas. 

Audience: These concepts can be applied to all levels of your system, but we think that improving your coordinated entry system is one of the best places to start with these resources. Convene your coordinated entry specialists, housing navigators, outreach workers, shelter providers, housing providers, and other frontline workers to complete a coordinated entry process map. Senior leadership should be in attendance to observe and learn and be ready to implement changes and improvements based on the gaps identified.


  • Partner and collective efforts have an explicit aim to eliminate programmatic and structural barriers that create disparities in outcomes.
  • Coalition invests in internal assessments, explicit training, as well as support to increase staff and organizations’ capability to engage in equity and cultural responsiveness work. 
  • Groups responsible for accountability, implementation, and making decisions represent BIPOC communities and people with lived experience.
  • People in groups most affected by homelessness are brought in to meaningfully participate in processes to identify problems and possible solutions.
  • Those receiving support feel respected, heard, and valued.
  • Disaggregated data is used to identify what needs to be changed.
  • Disparities in length of time to housing, service, and resource access are eliminated.
  • Programs and services are accessible, strengths-based, trauma-informed, culturally responsive, and tailored to individuals needs (not “one size fits all”).


  • Read this resource:

Foundations of an equitable and inclusive homeless response system 

For years, homeless response systems have reflected the systems that necessitated them, meaning that racial, class, and other inequities have been built into the system. Unfortunately, in many systems, the folks who are the most likely to experience homelessness may also be the least likely to receive the support they deserve, especially Black and Indigenous folks. 

This section provides resources in two main categories: building a racially equitable homeless response system, and meaningfully incorporating people with lived experience of homelessness into your system decision-making. 

As with any system, a homeless response system that is not explicitly designed to identify and respond to racial inequity will potentially sustain and even deepen it. Communities working to end homelessness expressed interest in addressing racial disparities in their homeless response systems, but there was no widely used or validated measurement framework for achieving a racially equitable homeless response system. 

Meaningful engagement with persons who have experienced homelessness is essential for developing effective policies, programs, and services to address the complex issues they face. To ensure a respectful and inclusive approach, it is important to establish comprehensive standards that guide interactions and collaborations with individuals who have lived experience of homelessness. These standards aim to empower and involve those with lived experience in decision-making processes, advocacy efforts, and service design. Systems must center people disproportionately impacted by the problem. It is imperative to ensure representation of people most impacted, with the least proximity to power, creating a system with opportunities to bring them to the table in a meaningful way.

Audience: Equity practices must be embedded within every level of your system, but the tools provided here are primarily geared toward frontline service workers and folks who are incorporating the expertise of people with lived experience of homelessness (PLEH) into decision-making and system improvements. These resources should be socialized across your system, and PLEH expertise should be a part of decision-making at every level.