With GIS, we are able to improve the efficiency of our homeless count and more accurately identify areas where we can target services and resources to help reduce homelessness in our community.
How GIS Inspired a New Way for the Point-in-Time Count in Placer County
Placer County and Nevada County extend over rural land just east of San Francisco, and like other counties, they are federally mandated to conduct a Point-in-Time Count (PTC) to survey the homeless population in their communities. The PTC is critical to secure resources and understand the at-risk population. Both are part of the Placer-Nevada Counties Continuum of Care (CoC), and they are committed to the goal of ending homelessness by connecting services and resources more effectively.
There Has to Be a Better Way
A year ago, Placer County was depending on paper surveys to conduct the PTC. To prepare for the count, the county was responsible for printing and providing all the surveys and tally count sheets. Volunteers, including county staff and nonprofit service providers, would then be sent into the field with the paper surveys. Once the surveys were returned, county staff were responsible for data input, which took about 50 hours. The data received would be manually entered into a spreadsheet. This process included sorting through papers and trying to interpret the handwriting of the volunteers in the field.
Raising the Bar for Future Counts
By embracing a geospatial strategy, the Placer County team and volunteers were able to work efficiently to collect and appropriately count the homeless community.
With no accurate way to capture their location, volunteers would estimate by street cross-sections. Back in the office with the survey results, staff had to locate the street cross-sections and manually plot the point on a map. Results were displayed in a heat map that only gave estimated locations of where homeless populations were.
Another major challenge was understanding and compiling the data into reports in a timely manner. As data had to be imputed before reports could be generated, reports would take many days to ensure the data is clean and there are no duplicates or missing data elements.
Making the Count, Count
In October 2018, as the counties were preparing for the 2019 PTC, Sue Compton, homeless management information system administrator at Placer County, was introduced to geographic information system (GIS) mobile data collection tools. Compton and her team were about to begin preparing for the next count, and she recognized the value GIS could bring to this effort to increase efficiency in the PTC. Compton presented a strategy to the CoC board to use GIS as the foundation for the PTC to receive resources to aid the homeless population. Compton turned to the Placer County GIS team to explore the possibilities of enhancing data collection for volunteers in the field and presenting the collected information efficiently and accurately through reports for decision-makers.
Esri's Survey123 for ArcGIS would allow them to send volunteers in the field with a mobile survey, which would provide an accurate location, cut down concerns around data security from carrying around paper surveys, and allow Placer County to create maps and run reports at a quicker rate. Using Survey123 for ArcGIS would relieve the pressure of leaving room for error when the count would be taken.
This proposed mobile strategy answered the concerns staff had for effectively carrying out the PTC in Nevada County. Nevada County stretches over more rural land and is harder to reach. The county relies on its staff as well as additional community volunteers to help conduct the count. Training an additional 50 volunteers in the previous year's PTC would've required much more work and even a walk-through on how to collect information. Ensuring that the additional help was all on the same page was critical to executing an efficient PTC strategy. The application's simplistic user interface sped up Placer County's training on how to collect information and optimized staff's time to get out and get going.
On the day of the PTC, volunteers used their smartphones to easily and quickly collect information while in the field. While volunteers were out collecting data, the information was channeling back to the office in real time, and the team was able to see and QA the surveys being collected. Incorporating GIS into their strategy allowed them to accurately collect data in a fraction of the time, meet federal US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) requirements, report back to stakeholders more quickly, increase understanding of the crisis, and present opportunities to intervene with policy.
Raising the Bar for Future Counts
By embracing a geospatial strategy, the Placer County team and volunteers were able to work efficiently to collect and appropriately count the homeless community. "With GIS, we are able to improve the efficiency of our homeless count and more accurately identify areas where we can target services and resources to help reduce homelessness in our community," said Compton. Using Survey123 for ArcGIS on their mobile devices allowed volunteers flexibility to collect federally required HUD information to better understand the unique needs of each community and create a performance dashboard.
After analyzing the data and visualizing where the homeless population is, the Placer-Nevada Counties CoC was able to gain greater insight into the homelessness crisis in the community. The counties are planning to enhance the use of GIS for future Point in-Time Counts to see how to continue to foster their geospatial strategy into their ecosystem and leverage real-time data.
For more information on how you can address the homelessness crisis in your community, visit go.esri.com/addressing-the-crisis.