Health and Human Services

How One Powerful App is Changing the Way California Communities Address Homelessness

We are still uncovering the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted our communities. COVID-19 brought economic instability and job insecurity. Sheltering-in-place policies increased family and relationship stresses. And individuals who were already at risk of experiencing homelessness were often pushed to their limits. In these strange times, changes are happening at a rapid pace. It’s a challenge to stay current. In fact, due to the pandemic, communities have not been able to conduct their annual Point-in-Time (PIT) count, a census of individuals experiencing homelessness, since 2019. This process, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), is performed each January to regularly monitor the numbers of unsheltered and sheltered individuals experiencing homelessness.

PIT counts are essential for officials to make better informed decisions regarding homelessness, allocate funds and resources to the problem, and visualize the severity of the crisis at hyperlocal levels. Without the PIT count, government leaders would not have the authoritative data they need to monitor and intervene in support of the humans in crisis in their community.

California CoCs Set the Stage for How PIT Counts Should be Done

Over the last few years, a new trend has emerged – the use of technology and advanced data analytics to evolve and modernize the PIT count. In fact, 95% of Continuums of Care (CoC) in California are now on board with these new methods as they conduct the count for the first time in two years.

Among the tech enabled, half of California’s CoC are using ArcGIS Survey123, a form-based mobile survey tool, that allows volunteers to collect data when connected or disconnected from the Internet as they work to document sheltered and unsheltered populations. Issues like piles of paperwork, hours of data entry, and inaccuracies that come with manual and duplicative processes will finally be eliminated thanks to the use of the digital survey.

ArcGIS Survey123 will provide California CoCs and many others across the country with a more accurate representation of persons experiencing homelessness and give them more actionable insight into where to allocate resources, provide services or administer outreach. This data-driven approach will allow communities to collect accurate data which will, in the long term, help them better address the issue.

According to the world population review California has the highest homeless population in the nation. This makes improving the accuracy of the PIT count even more important for the state. Through the use of ArcGIS Survey123, CoCs can meet the PIT count federal requirement, report back to stakeholders in real time, increase understanding of the crisis, and present opportunities to intervene with policy and services.

A Look at Los Angeles: Making GIS the Standard in Addressing Homelessness

It’s worth noting, that state and local governments have been leveraging GIS tools for many years to address homelessness. And much of that work is due to the fresh insights that initiated from the location-focused PIT count data.

For example, the Los Angeles city controller, Ron Galperin, champions the use of GIS to fight homelessness and better communicate its effects on the community. With more than 41,290 unhoused individuals in the City of Los Angeles, understanding where to allocate city funds to address the crisis is essential. After the city passed Proposition HHH, which authorized funds aimed at reducing homelessness by building, buying, or remodeling housing and facilities, Galperin further leveraged GIS to examine and track the city’s progress toward their goal. His first report in 2019, presented via a story map, recommended the city reallocate funds for lower-cost projects and streamline permitting. A few years later, he revisited the proposition’s success in another story map and endorsed allocating funds for more immediate relief to those experiencing homelessness.

In his most recent story map, Galperin outlined city properties that are available for homeless housing and services. His detailed analysis reported on 26 locations that the city could leverage immediately. Powered by accurate data and analytics, Galperin’s geographic approach allows the City of Los Angeles to monitor the homeless crisis and adjust budgets and priorities in real time.

It Must Start with the PIT Count

These examples from Los Angeles are only a few ways community leaders are taking action based on a foundation of accurate data derived from the streamlined PIT count. With a greater understanding of where the unsheltered and sheltered populations are, governments have a reliable starting point from which to make decisions about allocating resources, providing services, and planning housing strategies. And understanding where must start somewhere. I encourage you to check out the ArcGIS Survey123 application, and this documentation from HUD, Using ArcGIS to Reduce Homelessness, to accelerate the PIT counts in your community.

Esri’s Industry Perspective on Addressing Humans in Crisis.

About the author

Dr. Este Geraghty, MD, MS, MPH, CPH, GISP, is the Chief Medical Officer at Esri where she leads strategy and messaging for the Health and Human Services sector. Dr. Geraghty has been with Esri since 2014 and has led business development and solution development in the market. During her time at Esri, Dr. Geraghty has helped organizations around the world use location intelligence to combat Zika virus, finish the fight against polio, grapple with the opioid crisis, combat homelessness, enhance health preparedness and response, inform strategic planning, optimize healthcare access, and traverse the COVID-19 pandemic while tackling inequity. Formerly the Deputy Director of the Center for Health Statistics and Informatics with the California Department of Public Health, Dr. Geraghty led the state vital records and public health informatics programs. There she engaged in statewide initiatives in meaningful use, health information exchange, open data and interoperability. While serving as an Associate Professor of Clinical Internal Medicine at the University of California at Davis she conducted research on geographic approaches to influencing health policy and advancing community development programs. In addition to her degrees in Medicine, Medical Informatics and Public Health, Dr. Geraghty is also a board-certified public health professional (CPH) and a Geographic Information Systems Professional (GISP).

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