City’s custom-built app scores homeless encampment safety
With the Homeless Emergency Management Tracking and Prioritization Tool, Austin gets consistent health, safety and impact data on encampments citywide to support cross-departmental intervention.
Austin, Texas, has developed a homeless encampment management tool to help prioritize responses for site cleanups.
Called the Homeless Emergency Management (HEM) Tracking and Prioritization Tool, it “is a custom-built, cloud-based application developed in O365 PowerApps,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email to GCN. “The tool is used in the field by staff to capture information about homeless encampments, including factors related to health, safety, and impacts on infrastructure, property, and environmental health. This information results in a score that helps city staff prioritize locations for intervention.”
In August, the city announced the formation of the Homeless Encampment Management Team, which is staffed by employees from various departments. Broken into four sub-teams – planning, operations, policy and leadership – they use the HEM Tracking and Prioritization Tool to score encampments on public property. They also ensure camp closures will not be undertaken “outside of the Homeless Encampment Management Team process, except in cases when immediate action is required because an encampment poses an immediate hazard or obstruction,” city managers said.
An immediate hazard means that the people camping there are at imminent risk of injury or death or their presence creates such a risk to others. The city defines an obstruction as personal property, garbage or other encampment-related objects that interfere with pedestrian or traffic rights-of-way, for instance.
“The tool supports consistent data capture across encampments citywide, improves understanding of needs, risks, and trends, and supports coordinated cross-departmental decision-making related encampment response,” the spokesperson wrote.
Before these efforts, the city lacked a unified response to the problem; each department managed its own area, which made it difficult to track encampment work at a citywide level. Plus, staff collected different types of data with numerous systems of varying maturity, according to a May presentation.
The HEM Tracking and Prioritization Tool is modeled after the Housing-focused Encampment Assistance Link that the city initiated in 2021 to relocate people living in encampments to temporary housing and housing resources.
The value of the new tool is threefold, according to the presentation:
- It applies a citywide lens to encampment response, enabling prioritization and resource deployment to those that present the biggest risks.
- It supports consistent encampment data capture citywide.
- It improves citywide understanding of needs, risk and trends.
Helping unhoused people in Austin is a priority for the city. Its fiscal 2023 budget includes almost $5 million for encampment cleanup, part of $79 million dedicated to preventing and addressing homelessness.
Finding Home ATX is a community leader-led initiative that as of April 30 raised $422 million of its $515 million goal for housing 3,000 people experiencing homelessness, adding 1,300 new units of affordable housing for that population and building a better homelessness response system. Additionally, the city dedicated about $107 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to Finding Home ATX.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.