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Coordinating with a Continuum of Care as part of a local housing strategy


Homelessness has become a significant issue for many parts of the United States, including outside of large cities. In fact, between 2020 and 2022, there was a 13 percent growth in homelessness in largely urban areas that do not include a large city. This means cities of all sizes and locations must prioritize addressing homelessness as part of their local housing strategies

To do this effectively, local housing planners should coordinate their efforts with Continuums of Care (CoCs).

Homeless camp shown from above

A CoC is a regional or local planning body responsible for coordinating and funding the delivery of services to the homeless. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) adopted the CoC model from the mental health field in 1995. The model is designed to end homelessness by helping fragmented service providers work together across a four-part spectrum: 1) outreach, intake, and assessment; 2) emergency shelter; 3) transitional housing; and finally, 4) permanent supportive housing.

CoCs develop and monitor strategies for reducing and ending homelessness, and they receive funding from HUD’s Continuum of Care Program to use as part of a local strategy for addressing homelessness. As part of that responsibility, they collect data on the extent and nature of local homelessness and how homeless services are working. This information can help local housing planners understand the dimensions of local homelessness, which populations are affected, and the effectiveness of current efforts to address the crisis. HUD also charges CoCs with strategic planning and performance measurement for the homeless services system, including resources targeted towards ending homelessness managed by other local agencies. 

It’s important to note that CoCs are often separate from the organizations responsible for developing local housing strategies. They may be led by a non-profit created for that purpose or a service provider like the United Way. In addition, all major cities in the U.S. have CoCs, whose service areas may encompass both the city and its surrounding county. Smaller cities and less populated counties are often part of a Balance of State CoC that covers all the communities not served by another CoC.  

Coordinating with CoCs can help local housing planners make informed decisions about addressing homelessness by leveraging the resources and data that CoCs provide. This can lead to more effective strategies for reducing and ending homelessness in communities across the United States. This brief describes how localities can coordinate with CoCs to better understand local housing needs and align policy objectives and resources to strengthen their housing strategies.


Localities can coordinate with CoCs as part of a local housing strategy in several ways:

  • Sharing data on the need for housing and homelessness services.
  • Agreeing on objectives related to reducing homelessness.
  • Incorporating available resources into the implementation of these objectives.
  • Using changes to local regulations to support the objectives.
  • Measuring progress on meeting the objectives.

Localities can set the stage for collaboration with their local CoC while developing a housing strategy by having local officials serve on the CoC’s board or participate in other groups that are part of the CoC’s governance structure. More informal communication between local government and CoC staff can deepen relationships begun at formal meetings. 

Sometimes localities have relationships with CoCs because they have committed Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) or HOME funds to end homelessness. CDBG funds, for example, are often used to fund prevention programs that provide case management and financial assistance to people on the brink of becoming homeless. Cities and urban counties also receive direct allocations of federal funds for addressing homelessness under a flexible grant called the Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG), in which case the locality and CoC may already conduct joint planning. Localities in the process of developing a housing strategy may be able to build on existing relationships when it comes time to develop objectives related to homelessness as part of that strategy.

For localities that do not have a local CoC but instead are served by a Balance of State CoC, developing the relationship between a locality’s strategic planners and the CoC may take extra work. For example, at the start of an effort to develop a local housing strategy, a locality could approach the Balance of State CoC director about the best way to share data and establish goals to address homelessness.

Bringing Data from the CoC into the Analysis of Housing Needs

CoCs collect a variety of data about homelessness needs and services that are useful for developing a local housing strategy. Some localities may face an extreme level of housing insecurity represented by large or growing numbers of people staying in emergency shelters or “on the street” (i.e., in places not intended for human habitation, such as bus stations, under overpasses, or along riverbanks). 

The basic source of information on how many people experience these forms of homelessness is the point-in-time count (PIT), which is coordinated by the CoC on a single night in January at least every other year, and records the demographic characteristics of people experiencing sheltered and unsheltered homelessness. For developing a local housing strategy, the PIT data can be useful in determining how many people in the locality experience homelessness, especially unsheltered homelessness, and how rapidly their numbers have grown in recent years. The PIT data can also show which racial groups and household types in the locality have the highest risk of falling into homelessness. A consultation with CoC staff (or a local partner, such as a university that helps conduct the PIT) may be helpful for understanding the numbers and their limitations. A Balance of State CoC should be able to provide PIT estimates specific to a particular city or county.

CoCs also conduct an annual Housing Inventory Count (HIC) that tallies the number of shelter units and housing subsidies available to people experiencing or exiting homelessness in their service area. The HIC data can be used to assess shortfalls between the number of people experiencing homelessness and the shelter beds and subsidized housing units available to bring people indoors and move them to permanent housing.

Another data source that may help with the analysis of needs is the local Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). Each CoC is required to create an HMIS into which homelessness service providers enter data for people flowing through their emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, rapid re-housing programs, and permanent supportive housing programs. These data can show who enters the homeless service system and how they navigate it. Analysis of HMIS data can show how successful the homeless services system has been in making shelter stays brief and stabilizing people in permanent housing so they do not return to shelter or the street. HMIS data also can show where people experiencing homelessness are coming from to inform how to target efforts to stem the inflow into homelessness.

Because the HMIS data are collected at the household level, they are not made public to protect individuals’ privacy and safety. Localities wishing to access HMIS data might be able to sign a data use agreement with the CoC, but that often proves difficult if not impossible. However, CoCs must report aggregate data to HUD that answer many important questions about the nature of homelessness in the locality. Some CoCs go beyond meeting HUD requirements and use HMIS data for their own strategic plans. It should be possible for localities, especially those that have built a relationship with their CoC, to obtain information reported to HUD or developed for CoC planning.

Making Addressing Homelessness an Objective of a Local Housing Strategy

A locality that makes reducing homelessness one of the policy objectives in its local housing strategy can build on and complement the CoC’s strategy for ending homelessness. This may require discussions to help localities and CoCs reconcile their perspectives. For example, a CoC’s strategy may focus entirely on renters with poverty-level incomes, since homelessness is a product of deep poverty and rents that people with poverty-level incomes cannot afford. At the same time, a locality’s housing strategy may also focus on homeowners with low and moderate incomes or workforce housing further upstream of homelessness. Still, there are likely to be many opportunities for a locality and CoC to identify shared or complementary policy objectives within the broader context of a housing strategy. 

Some examples might include regulatory reforms that overcame constraints to increasing the supply of non-luxury rental housing and helped moderate the affordability crisis associated with high levels of homelessness. Localities and CoCs may also design programs that provide rent subsidies to households at immediate risk of losing their housing. They may also choose to devote resources to permanent supportive housing (PSH) for people with disabilities and long-term patterns of homelessness to reduce the most visible local manifestations of homelessness.

Incorporating Available Resources into the Implementation of Objectives

A local housing strategy ideally draws on all the policy and funding tools available to the locality. In addition to the federal CoC grant program and state funding that may be allocated to the CoC, CoCs often have relationships with public housing authorities (PHAs) that have committed Housing Choice Vouchers or public housing units to a strategy for ending homelessness. PHAs also may administer special purpose vouchers such as the HUD-VASH program and the Emergency Housing Voucher program in collaboration with CoCs. 

Coordinating a local housing strategy with a PHA can encourage the PHA to increase its set-asides for people leaving homelessness and accept allocations of special purpose programs offered by HUD. The CoC and other stakeholders in the local housing strategy can help PHAs overcome burdens on their staff associated with implementing special programs or making Housing Choice Vouchers available to people experiencing homelessness. For example, the CoC can provide trained case managers to help people demonstrate their eligibility for PHA programs and persuade landlords to rent to them despite challenges like poor credit scores or negative past experiences as renters.

Collaborating with the CoC to Address the Causes of Homelessness

During the development of a strategic plan, local housing planners and CoCs can work together to identify resources and policy tools that can be used to prevent inflow into homelessness. For example, localities may choose to dedicate local sources of funding (or block grant funds such as Community Development Block Grants) to programs that support people at immediate risk of falling into homelessness. Equally important may be changes to zoning and other land use regulations or building and housing codes that facilitate the development of affordable housing. Such regulatory changes may be important for developing housing dedicated to people leaving homelessness, such as permanent supportive housing. They may also encourage the development of more housing overall to slow housing cost increases, one of the fundamental causes of homelessness.

Using CoC Data to Help Monitor Progress on Meeting Objectives

Establishing and tracking numerical goals can help assess a local housing strategy’s effectiveness and identify shortfalls. Depending on the severity of the homelessness crisis locally, the plan might stop short of establishing goals for homelessness reduction. However, the HMIS data reported to HUD by CoCs or monitored for their own planning can track interim steps toward reducing homelessness, such as increased percentages of individuals and families leaving shelter programs for permanent housing or reduced shares of people returning to homelessness over three years.


The City of Philadelphia included objectives related to homelessness in its 2018 housing strategy, including a target for the number of new affordable units for households leaving homelessness, goals for the expansion of resources for the homeless services system, and a new emergency homelessness prevention program with flexible financial assistance and wraparound services. The goals in the strategy were informed by a homelessness working group led by the director of Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services (OHS). OHS developed Roadmap to Homes, Philadelphia’s 2018 five-year strategic plan to address homelessness, which, among other actions, established an Intergovernmental Council on Homelessness for city agencies to collaborate on homelessness prevention activities. OHS also manages Philadelphia’s continuum of care, and both entities share responsibility with the city for implementing actions to prevent homelessness identified in the city’s housing strategy. 

Related resources

The Annual Homeless Assessment Reports to Congress (AHAR) provide national information on trends and patterns of homelessness that local planners can use to contextualize their data. The AHAR has two reports each year. Part 1 is based on the PIT count and is published with a time lag of 10-12 months, providing state-level as well as national data for different types of households (adult individuals, families with children, youth, veterans, and individuals with chronic patterns of homelessness), data on types of locations (large cities, other mainly urban, mainly suburban, and rural), as well as CoCs with the largest and smallest changes from the previous year. Part 2 is based on HMIS data and is published with about a two-year time lag, providing national totals, totals for household types, and totals for types of locations (central city/suburb/rural). Part 2 also provides information about how people use the components of the homeless services system, suggesting some of the analyses that individual localities might do.  

In the Midst of Plenty: Homelessness and What to Do About It discusses the causes of and policy options to address homelessness. The book is a compilation and analysis of research and has an index that can guide developers of a local housing strategy to the empirical evidence on topics of interest to them.

Continuum of Care 101 is a 2009 guidebook on how HUD administers and funds homelessness programs. It provides an overview of the CoC system, including why it is important and how it is organized.

Cities, Zoning, and the Fragmented Response to Homelessness discusses the disconnect between local housing planning and policy and homelessness. It incorporates analysis of over 100 homelessness plans from across the country, a survey of mayors, and current federal homelessness and housing plans.

HUD Grantee Contact Information provides contact information for CoCs and other recipients of HUD program funds.

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