Mobile Apps Help Communities Produce More Accurate Homeless Counts
Every year, on a single night in January, communities across the country conduct an annual count of sheltered and unsheltered people experiencing homelessness.
To make it easier to collect data during these point in time (PIT) counts, cities are using mobile apps to help volunteers and community coordinators collect and manage the data.
Massachusetts-based Simtech Solutions’ Counting Us application, due to be used in at least 50 regions this year, lets outreach teams input detailed information in real time so coordinators can validate data as it comes in. A second app, Show The Way, allows social workers to input more detailed data about individuals’ habits and experiences with location and demographic data, images and other indicators of vulnerability. The company’s technology has even helped some departments track COVID-19 in their homeless populations.
Because the PIT homeless count provides a snapshot of a community’s homeless population, and not a comprehensive survey, the data may not be complete.
A 2020 Government Accountability Office report found that for some Continuums of Care—the local organizations that coordinate homelessness services—PIT counts had large fluctuations from year to year. GAO concluded that the annual count likely underestimates the actual number due to the inherently difficult process of identifying homeless individuals.
Marqueia Watson, executive director of the Greater Kansas City Coalition to End Homelessness, said the CoC she runs estimates there are twice as many people on the streets at any given time than is reflected in the city’s PIT count.
“Our numbers vary anywhere from the mid 400s to the mid 500s, depending on the year,” Watson said. “But we think that there are probably more like 1,000, and those are just the people that engage with the [Homeless Management Information] System in some way.”
Local HMIS platforms collect data on the housing and services provided to homeless individuals and families.
PIT volunteers each get a unique set-up key when they download the app, Simtech Founder and CEO Matt Simmonds said. The set-up key then ties any surveys they fill out to the region where they are assigned. As soon as the surveys are filled out, the data leaves the volunteers’ local devices and is then handled by the PIT Regional Command Center in what Simmonds called a “one-way post of information.”
“We worked with HUD for two years and they vetted our tech to help us with security and reliability,” Simmonds said. “On top of all of that, we baked offline capabilities into the tech, so you would still have access in areas without internet.”
Watson said she believed Simtech’s human-centered approach to design yields a user interface that is more intuitive to the challenges her volunteers face out in the field. For example, given names are not required, she said, noting that sometimes homeless individuals adopt go by nicknames within the community.
In the past, Houston would use a sample of the its PIT count to extrapolate demographic information about the homeless population, said Ana Rausch, vice president of program operations for the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston. “Now, we are asking the questions in person,” she said.
Since the interviews are captured with geolocation data, Rausch said that her department has also been able to find concentrations of encampments and deduce shifts in the unsheltered population based on new developments and construction.
“After the count, we have sent teams to those hotspots where people are densely packed together to engage them about housing, which is the eventual goal,” Rausch said. So, even if someone does not answer part of the survey, the volunteer is able to make a determination for a future follow up,” she said.
The feature Rausch especially appreciates about the app is the ability to tailor the questions to what the Houston CoC wants, and still meet the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s requirements.
“What I really love is that, with the click of a button, I’m able to pull the exact report that is needed to be uploaded to HUD’s [Homelessness Data Exchange] when it comes time to report our numbers,” Rausch said. “By that, I mean they tailor their questions for households, youth, adults, unsheltered, all that according to HUD’s data standards.”
The 2021 Menino Survey of Mayors, conducted by Boston University’s Initiative on Cities, revealed that mayors have limited access to homelessness data, which impacts decision-making. Only 3% conduct daily counts 35% collect data monthly, and 38% annually. As many as 10% do not have access to city-level data since it is often collected by adjacent counties. Coordination issues between the two departments can sometimes lead to difficulties acquiring municipal data, the report found.
Rausch said her department plans to use apps for the foreseeable future, crediting their ability to facilitate aspects of the PIT count process for volunteers in various roles. Watson echoed the sentiment.
“It feels like a grassroots solution to a grassroots issue, and it excites me that the people behind the technology can grasp the methodology with which we approach homelessness,” Watson said. “You don’t get that very often.”