5 Cities Where Tech Helps End Homelessness

Technology has been criticized for contributing to homelessness in cities throughout the US. But corporations, governments, and nonprofit organizations are really just a reflection of people who helped create them, people who must make the choice daily to love their neighbor, or not. Here’s a look at five cities where collaboration with technology is working towards ending homelessness at a local level.

San Francisco, California

The Bay Area is home to Facebook, Google, Twitter, and many more, not to mention the enormous capital needed to launch tech companies. It is the fifth-largest world economy. A quarter of the US homeless population is in California; lack of community support and rising home prices are major causes. According to Adam Rogers at Wired Magazine, “In the Bay Area, Facebook has announced a multimillion-dollar commitment to affordable housing. Marc Benioff, the CEO of Salesforce, made homelessness a major part of his speech at the opening of Salesforce Tower, announcing a $3 million donation primarily to a group called Hamilton Families, which has provided services to homeless people for three decades. An organization called Tipping Point has announced that it’s raising $100 million from (thus far) anonymous donors to build supportive housing.”

Rogers tells us that “tech company money might come in smaller amounts, over small timeframes, but its donors are more comfortable with experimentation and data-driven solutions. That’s why large aggregator-type organizations have developed to send the various streams of money to the right places. It takes massive infusions of public money to address big, long-term solutions. Private money in partnership can fill in the gaps.” Those massive infusions of public money? That comes from quality leadership at the city and county levels that can get people to support the idea that ending homelessness is a priority.

Colombus, Ohio

Monica Nickelsberg, GeekWire’s Civic Innovation Editor, says, “Columbus was one of the first cities to adopt a Housing First model. In 1986, the city took the unusual step of creating a Community Shelter Board, an organization that controls the city’s entire homeless response budget and coordinates all of the service providers in the region.” Again, this aggregator-type organization’s strength lies in the fact that it has 30 years of experience and is data-driven, setting specific outcomes and approaching them systematically. Notably, they have set rigorous demands on the quality of their data, requiring a 95% rate of accuracy/completeness of DCA (Direct Client Assistance) applications from their agencies.

Seattle, Washington

Seattle is in the middle of exponential growth in the tech industry. They also have a homeless population of around 12,000. You would think that with all the great minds of tech toiling away in the skyscrapers above that it would be a snap to develop an algorithm to end homelessness and to generate buy-in from corporate sponsors to support it. Not so much. Nickelsberg explains that “much of Seattle’s response to homelessness is also modeled on the Housing First approach, but the city does not have enough affordable units to make it a reality in many cases. Last year, Seattle exited 5,000 people from homelessness and into housing according to Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda.”

Unfortunately, Nickelsberg also says, “A 2018 audit found Seattle’s homeless response to be flawed because of a lack of coordination between cities, the county, housing authorities, and service providers. All Home, the agency created to oversee the Seattle region’s homeless response, ‘lacks the authority to unify local funders into an efficient and nimble crisis response system,’ according to the report.”

Seattle makes the list because in June of 2018, stakeholders were brought together across the region and were able to create some positive change. They have created additional shelter space and a $100 million bond from the county for affordable housing units. In August, Amazon, Microsoft, Zillow, Expedia and Tableau were brought into the Innovation Advisory Council in an effort by Mayor Jenny Durkan to encourage Big Tech to help create solutions to homelessness. According to an article in The Seattle Times, Mayor Durkan “says the group will identify issues, make policy recommendations and implement projects related to ‘data analytics, dashboards, applications and software for the city.’ The order says the businesses ‘will commit to helping deliver these technology solutions.'”

The cities making a dent in homelessness — and what Seattle can learn from them

Austin, Texas

Austin may be at a tipping point because it appears everyone is starting to work together. Backed by $1.25 million in funding, the leadership from the city’s iTeam (at the mayor’s Innovation Office) has created initiatives that are being adopted by nonprofits and healthcare providers. All of them are working towards shared goals. Like the other cities, quality data drives results.

Mike Clark-Madison at The Austin Chronicle says, “For the iTeam itself, understanding the lived experience was a no-brainer and essential to its design process. ‘We started, as an IT company would, by talking to the users,’ says iTeam project manager Taylor Cook. ‘Which had never been done in a deliberate and systematic way before. They have a lot of knowledge of what leads to homelessness and what allows you to exit, and why a lot of people do fall back into it.’” It is this emphasis on valuing qualitative and quantitative data, along with a careful study of best practices elsewhere that gives promise for new and better solutions to ending homelessness.

Clark-Madison tells us that “One example is Austin-Travis County EMS, which took and ran with an iTeam prototype called “C4″ – the Collaborative Care Communica­tions Center, which provides a single point of contact for first responders to connect to service providers. ‘We’d already been wanting a system that can seamlessly, rapidly get information into the field that we need in encounters with those experiencing homelessness,’ said ATCEMS Assistant Chief Andy Hofmeister.” This collaboration is key to making homeless initiatives work.

Atlanta, Georgia

Atlanta is also using the Housing First model. Due to streamlined and efficient systems, their Salvation Army is able to move participants into a shelter within 30 to 60 days, versus the national average of over 100 days. Many homeless people do not have their vital records and that prevents them from being housed. According to an article in Motherboard, MiniCity, an Atlanta nonprofit was “developed by tech designer India Hayes, communications pro Amber McCain, and filmmaker Anita Jones” to remove the barrier a lack of ID presents. “Six months into the pilot, Mini City distributed 500 NFC-enabled wristbands—similar to FitBits or Nike FuelBands—to expand its services to Atlanta’s homeless. Each wearable holds an identifier number given to homeless citizens when they begin the process of obtaining a government ID. Users unlock Mini City’s app by tapping the wristband on a tablet at Salvation Army and other nonprofits…allowing them to book shelter beds, find nearby employment and medical resources, and check the status of their ID applications.” When homeless populations are able to obtain not just their birth certificate and social security card but also their voter ID, they begin to have a voice and be empowered to shape policy for themselves to serve their needs.

These five cities only scratch the surface of just how much potential the triple combination of tech innovations, financial support from Big Tech, and effective leadership in government has to end homelessness and change lives. There is a responsibility to use innovations in technology to design new ways to reduce and ultimately end homelessness. If we have created these corporate behemoths and elected our government officials, then we are also responsible for the ethics they act upon.

Reality Changing Observations:

1. When you think of a person that is experiencing homelessness, what preconceptions do you have about them?

2. Why do you think there is a social stigma around homelessness, and how can you change that in your community?

3. How do your local government and the businesses in your community serve their homeless neighbors?

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