Discerning ‘Functional and Absolute Zero’: Defining and Measuring an End to Homelessness in Canada


  • Alina Turner University of Calgary
  • Tom Albanese Abt Associates
  • Kyle Pakeman Queen’s University




Several cities and regions have announced that they have “ended homelessness,” as this goal has become a major part of policy and community-based responses to homelessness. Yet, there are different ways to define what “ending homelessness” actually means. It is almost never meant in its most literal form, which would mean having every resident in a community sleeping in his or her own, secure home, on any given night. While that is certainly the ideal, and the goal we can work towards, it is simply not realistic in practice. People may find themselves homeless, at least temporarily. We need a meaningful and useful definition of “ending homelessness” that recognizes that reality, while pushing us towards an ideal situation. This is the difference between a Functional Zero end to homelessness and an Absolute Zero end to homelessness. To the public, the words “ending homelessness” likely bring to mind a vision of someday when no person will ever experience homelessness, which is the ideal Absolute Zero concept, that is arguably unlikely to fully achieve. The goal of a Functional Zero end to homelessness, simplified, is to achieve a point where there are enough services, housing and shelter beds for everyone who needs them, and anyone who experiences homelessness does so only briefly, is rehoused successfully, and is unlikely to return to homelessness again.  The two definitions do not stand in opposition to each other. Rather, communities should use the Functional Zero definition to get ever closer to the Absolute Zero definition, even if they can never fully reach it. It is critical, however, to clarify the differences between them and have clear definitions of each in order to provide communities with a framework to both achieve Functional Zero and aspire to Absolute Zero. However, even within the concept of Functional Zero, there is much room for different visions. What constitutes a “brief” experience with homelessness, what constitutes “successful” rehousing, and the acceptable rate of unlikelihood for a return to homelessness will all be seen differently by different people, including those who have lived experience with homelessness. In order for us to properly set out to achieve Functional Zero (and aspire to Absolute Zero), it is crucial to specify what we mean and make it measurable, and consistent, so we can assess our progress. Doing that will require the input of people who have lived experience with homelessness, who are often not consulted on strategy development. Their sense of what constitutes an “end to homelessness” might not quite be what academics, community workers and policy-makers expect, and it might also evolve over time. We can, and should, agree on specific and measurable definitions for a Functional Zero and an Absolute Zero end to homelessness, but we should not consider that the end of it. We must continue to develop and refine those definitions as we continue to consult with those who have lived experience with homelessness. They will bring an understanding to what it means to “end homelessness” that someone who has never experienced homelessness simply cannot.






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