Harnessing data can help cities reduce homelessness

A homeless man sleeps on a downtown roadway overpass in Portland, Oregon.

A homeless man sleeps on a downtown roadway overpass in Portland, Oregon. Getty Images/George Rose

By leaning into digital and focusing on unlocking their data, governments can more easily connect individuals with the resources that keep them from sliding into homelessness.

You don’t have to be a social worker to see how America’s battle against homelessness is going. Across the nation, the homeless are no longer relegated to a certain part of town or some distant neighborhood. They are at our own doorsteps. 

Governments and agencies continue to grapple with the problem to varying degrees and with limited success. Too often, the approach is built on the flawed premise that homelessness is a foregone conclusion.

While there are no easy answers, we do need to start asking better questions to curb homelessness. And the first question we need to answer is how can we stop homelessness before it starts?

The Current Situation

Even before Covid-19, homelessness in the United States was steadily increasing. According to an annual study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, about 580,000 individuals were homeless in 2020

The pandemic-driven loss of jobs and employment income will cause the number of homeless workers to increase each year through 2023, according to a January 2021 report from the nonprofit research group the Economic Roundtable. The study also noted that without large-scale government employment programs, homelessness is projected to grow twice as much as it did following the 2008 Great Recession.

Making matters worse, housing prices continue to grow faster than incomes. And more than half of U.S. families who are in poverty pay more than half of their income for housing.

The time for action is now. By using a three-phase strategy, states and localities might finally be able to reduce homelessness in their communities.

Phase One: Ensuring Reliable Shelter Options

State and local governments’ primary focus of providing safe shelter has left little time for visionary efforts. While that is important, it’s equally critical to focus on continuity of programs and protection of residents.

The first step is understanding who the vulnerable population is and getting them safely sheltered. The pandemic has changed our physical environments, with some facilities being temporarily or permanently closed or repurposed. Cities’ efforts to increase capacity to shelter the growing number of homeless have run the gamut, from buying or commandeering hotels in Kings County, Washington to building small communities on city land in Portland, Oregon. Since these are not the typical shelters cities have operated, they may be treading unfamiliar ground.

Real estate industry insights will help with key tasks, such as assessing contractual obligations, reviewing regulatory compliance and developing solutions for maintaining functionality and maximizing efficiency.

As cities seek solutions around shelter location and capacity strategy, collaborating with economic development and community planning resources can help the team develop a longer-term plan to reduce risk and costs as well as measure impact.

Phase Two: Harnessing Data

As a city’s homeless shelter scenario begins to stabilize, residents should already be receiving the services they need to get back on their feet. By leaning into digital and focusing on unlocking their resident data, agencies are also unlocking the insights and agility that are essential for the “next.”

But applying a one-size-fits-all approach across the entire population will achieve little. Each person is different, and there are myriad causes for homelessness. Some may be grappling with mental health, substance abuse or financial challenges; some are unable to work because of health conditions.

Without properly integrated data and with only a partial picture of the person who is in need, agencies won’t know how to help them. Without diving into the specifics and nuances of circumstances, an agency won’t be able to answer the two most foundational questions: What is their challenge, and can the government do anything to help?

To deliver services that will get someone to a better place, governments must identify the specific factors that moved that person or family into homelessness.

Data, specifically the powerful insights that it provides, makes this seemingly impossible task possible. Government programs receive and amass enormous stores of data covering a broad range of public services, from housing to health to child care. When agencies connect individuals’ many data points, they’re able to construct a “digital twin.”  A digital twin is a digital representation of a real-world entity or system. In this case, data is aggregated and analyzed to enable a holistic view around an individual so that agencies can determine how best to support them so that they experience improved outcomes.

Phase Three: Early Interventions

By accelerating their capabilities to unlock their data and analytics, agencies can do more than react — they can prevent.

In 2018, Maidstone Borough in Kent, United Kingdom. transformed its service model from reactive to predictive, applying a proactive solution driven by data. The borough recorded a 58% increase in homelessness in the five years prior. By integrating data from multiple government systems, agency workers were better able to understand what was happening with individuals or families.

Because agency workers were able to identify a trend toward homelessness, they could intervene earlier, before individuals were on the street. When this happened, they were able to provide services such as housing assistance, legal assistance, tax debt resolution and employment services. As a result of this early intervention, the rate of homelessness fell by 40% in one year.

Opportunities Close to Home

Homelessness affects the entire community — not only those needing help but the people who live, work and visit there. As funding from the federal government trickles down to state and local governments, the opportunities to create new governance models increases. 

While this funding is critical, it’s data, not money, that holds the key to reducing homelessness. Fortunately, data is an abundant government resource. Government, with its place at the head of the table, can know more and do more than the innumerable private organizations, online groups and nonprofits that are trying to end homelessness.

Sharing information across agencies provides valuable insights into specific needs. Determining how best to meet those needs, whether for an individual or a family, requires that the government know where and how to access the information. Knowing the real need and knowing your data will ensure that government is able to: connect residents with the resources that keep them from sliding into homelessness.

Andrea Danes is the EY Americas Government and Public Sector, HHS Strategy Executive Director and the EY Global Human Services Leader. She has more than 28 years of experience in Human Services focused on supporting governments in their use of data and program integration.

NEXT STORY: How data-driven policies can help states and localities

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