Viewpoints

Hard data and warm hearts: A formula for ending homelessness

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By Liz Enbysk, Smart Cities Council

Statistics on homelessness in our big cities are always troubling – but this one from New York City is particularly hard to fathom: 23,000 homeless children live in NYC shelters.

Melissa Mowery knows the statistics all too well. She is the Vice President for CAMBA’s HomeBase, a homelessness prevention program funded by the Department of Homeless Services in New York City. They are using use technology in new ways to better target those at most risk of becoming homeless and stepping in with eviction prevention services.

But it can be tough going in a city where housing costs are fourth highest in the nation, apartment vacancy rates are under 2.5% — and there were 4,670 eviction filings in Brooklyn alone last month.

"In New York City, we can't build ourselves out of it," Mowery says. The best way to have affordable housing in NYC, she adds, is to prevent evictions.

Her program's mission is to find at-risk families and find them in time, meaning before they've been evicted and are out on the streets.

Data is helping them do that. The HomeBase program teamed with SumALL.org, whose mission is "to empower change makers and maximize their social impact through data." SumALL helped mine data from DHS, Housing Court and some paid data sets and created a predictive algorithm that Mowery says transformed their outreach approach to one that is more data-driven.

They also worked with Arachno to map the data so they had a visualization to help identify clusters of risk. That enabled them to prioritize their outreach. The data visualizations also help make the case to elected officials who may not understand the breadth of the problem, Mowery says.

Next came a big van – named the You Can Van by clients – which the program uses to provide services in those clusters of risk. "We'll go anywhere," Mowery says. "There's nowhere we won't go." Social workers can do assessments on the spot in the van and make referrals to legal services, food stamps, etc.

A veteran social worker, Mowery suggests homelessness is like a bus route to a shelter – there are many stops along the way. Because the number one predictor of winding up in a shelter is having been in one before, stopping evictions that lead to homelessness and to shelters helps stabilize individuals and families.

It's also cost effective. According to Mowery, it costs over $37,000 to shelter a family for one year while the average cost per client of the HomeBase program is less than $4,000.

The bottom line: HomeBase has been successful with the clients it serves over 95% of the time.
 

Data made easy
Manuel Sarria is Deputy Executive Director of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, which is tasked among other things with ending chronic homelessness in Miami-Dade County. One way they are doing that is with data.

Sarria told the audience at Smart Cities Week that as a social worker, deep data analysis isn't his thing.

Still, Sarria helped pilot a tool developed by the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness that uses existing data on homelessness to help communities understand trends and sharpen their strategies. The Supportive Housing Opportunities Planner (SHOP) Tool is free to download on the agency's website.

The tool surfaces existing data from point-in-time and housing inventory count data. Sarria says it gives homeless advocates a sense of how their efforts are tracking and whether they need new strategies if the status quo isn't working.

Sarria highlighted the impact the tool has had on his agency's work in Miami-Dade County:

  • In 2015, food and beverage tax funding was approved to create 96 new permanent housing units using Housing First to serve chronic homeless
  • In 2016, orders of priority were adopted for referral to permanent housing, prioritizing chronic homeless
  • 3 public housing authorities signed an MOU to create 178 new units of permanent housing for 2016 and 2017, again prioritizing chronic homeless

"It's an easy to use tool. It's a good planning tool," Sarria said. It also is useful for documenting homelessness for the community so they better understand the challenge.

 

Liz Enbysk is editor of the Smart Cities Council’s Compassionate Cities initiative. The Council works to help cities use technology to become more livable, workable and sustainable, and has announced challenge grants with the White House challenge to help five U.S. cities in that journey. Learn how to win one for your city at http://grants.smartcitiescouncil.com.

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