With the help of technical and charitable partners from Seattle, a team of data scientists from King County is developing a dashboard for the homeless response system that analyzes data from a variety of sources, including shelters and behavioral health services. The goal is to capture every interaction a homeless person has with the system, to build a more complete and human-centered picture of what it is like to be homeless in King County.
“Even though it’s just scratching the surface, it’s a transformative job,” said Owen Kaifash, an employee of the King’s Regional Office for the Homeless (RHA).
For many years, the number of homeless people in King County was measured by groups of volunteers who covered the region by infantry, conducting a rough census of homeless people in the open air – in tent camps, on sidewalks or in secluded corners of public places.
The informal census was considered far from perfect, and a long-standing chronic underestimation of reports may have played a role in undermining the county’s efforts to address the growing problem of the homeless. According to the latest estimates, a personal census estimates that just over 11,000 people are feeling homeless in the Seattle region.
“If the problem really was 11,000 people, our system could deal with it,” said Anne Martens, a spokeswoman for the RHA. “But that’s 40,000.”
The so-called reporting system at the time was flawed for the obvious reason that volunteers could not contact every person living without asylum in the region, even if the asylum also reported data. Complicating the problem of underestimating accountability, people living outdoors in public places make up only a fraction of the disadvantaged community.
“Every year we continued to invest significant resources in (counting time),” said Kaifash. “And then everyone says it’s an understatement.”
Last year, the RHA announced it would no longer be counting on time. Instead, the agency will look for an ever-expanding data pool to understand the full picture of homelessness in the Seattle area.
Initially, work to obtain data on the homeless was supported by funding from the Gates Foundation. Now the RHA is turning its attention to creating a “List by Names” database, which is supported by development work at no extra charge from technology experts from Seattle. The By-Name tool will enable every person who uses the services of the homeless to have a personal profile that tracks and helps manage their personal experiences.
The RHA describes it this way in one page: “People who feel homeless will have direct access and control over their information, as will those who work to help them move into stable housing. It should be the only source of all the information needed to facilitate connectivity to housing services and opportunities. ”
The work of RHA data comes at a time when the local housing market is displacing many people, and a controversial debate is raging over how to create more affordable housing. As the demand for homeless resources grows, the RHA has faced criticism for having slowly enter into contracts with partners across the region.
The RHA data initiative is separate from another public dashboard initiative that Seattle Mayor Bruce Harel will announce Tuesday as part of an update to the city’s homelessness plan.
Public dashboard which is now on the RHA website, organized around issues of equity, speed of response and resources. Among other trends, this shows that colored people are disproportionately homeless, and that at least 25% of the homeless community live without shelter. It also shows that in 2020, for the first time in many years, the number of households entering the system was less than the number of households leaving the system.
But due to the nature of data reporting the system is still focused on the provider, allowing for gaps in the data. Christina McHugh, the county’s regional manager for housing and homelessness assessment, estimated that approximately 7,000 homeless people were not included in the usual 2020 data.
“What can we do to overcome this?” said McHugh. “We (must) accept the complexity of how homeless people interact with the system.”
The future goal is to close these gaps so that more people can communicate with services – and ultimately with housing.
To the big question, which, as McHugh said, one can hope the data can provide an answer: “From start to finish, what is the experience of a person with a system?”