How cities are using technology to tackle homelessness

  • Homelessness is on the rise
  • Blockchain can give the homeless a portable, digital identity
  • Software tracks and monitors San Francisco’s homeless population
  • A charity in Lincolnshire, England, uses drones to locate homeless people in remote areas
  • Big data is proving useful in preventing homelessness

Having a home is something most of us take for granted. We come home after a long day at work, take off our shoes, sit down on the sofa, and turn on the TV to catch up on the day’s events, but rarely do we stop to think about people who aren’t so lucky to have a place to call home. Perhaps we should, though, as homelessness is becoming a growing issue in countries around the world.

Estimating the exact number of people who are homeless is an incredibly difficult task. In addition to having wildly different definitions of homelessness, countries also use different methods to count the number of homeless people. As a result, the official numbers often fail to reflect the real situation accurately. Most homelessness statistics only include people who are sleeping in shelters or on the streets, while those who are living in inadequate settlements such as slums, squatting in structures not intended for housing, or sleeping on their friend’s couch are usually left out. To make matters even worse, some cities will intentionally report lower numbers to make themselves look better, while the homeless aren’t exactly eager to talk to officials, either, and they often avoid them because they fear harassment or arrest.

Homelessness is on the rise

According to the most recent estimates, there are currently more than 150 million homeless people around the world, which accounts for approximately 2 per cent of the world’s population. Furthermore, around 1.6 billion – more than 20 per cent of the global population – reside in inadequate housing conditions. Some of the most common causes of homelessness include unemployment, poverty, family breakdown, lack of affordable housing, privatisation of civic services, unplanned and rapid urbanisation, investment speculation in housing, and displacement caused by conflicts or natural disasters.

An infographic showing the estimated number of homeless people in the world, as well as those living in inadequate conditions
According to the latest estimates, there are approximately 150 million homeless people in the world, which accounts for about 2 per cent of the global population, while 1.6 billion, or 20 per cent of the global population, are living in inadequate conditions.

While numerous efforts have been made in recent years to address the problem, it doesn’t seem to have been enough, and homelessness continues to rise, especially in Europe. A recent report published by the European Federation of National Organizations Working with the Homeless (FEANTSA) and the French Abbe Pierre Foundation reveals that the number of homeless people has increased dramatically in every European country, except Finland. Obviously, the complexity of the issue requires a new, more innovative approach, which is why cities around the world are increasingly turning to technology for help.

Blockchain can give the homeless a portable, digital identity

In Austin, Texas, more than 2,500 people are living on the streets at any given time. While a team of community health paramedics is on the ground every day, trying to provide aid to those people, finding them and getting them properly connected to homelessness services is quite challenging. The majority of homeless people don’t have all of their identity documents, such as birth certificates, social security cards, and health insurance records, while many have none at all. To solve this issue, the city has decided to launch a pilot project that will give the homeless people of Austin a portable, blockchain-based digital identity. In addition to providing the homeless with an online digital footprint that can’t be lost, stolen, or deleted, the project will also help homelessness service workers to perform their duties more efficiently.

“We sort of take for granted this notion of identity,” says Tim Mercer, the director of global health at Dell Medical School, one of the partners on the project. However, a homeless person can easily misplace or lose their documents. “When that stuff gets [lost], they just have to start over,” adds Mercer. “They need to get a new ID and new birth certificate, which sets them back on their pathway to recovery, broadly defined.” In addition to providing a proof of existence, birth certificates, social security cards, and drivers’ licenses also provide access to housing, food stamps, health clinics, and disability services. Without them, a person can feel like a ghost in the system. Blockchain technology could change that.

Thanks to blockchain, the homeless people of Austin will no longer have to carry paper identification documents with them. Instead, their records will be digitised, encrypted, and stored securely on a decentralised server. Furthermore, they will have full access to their own records and will be able to control who can see them. This could also be great news for homelessness service workers, who won’t have to bring a homeless person into an office anymore to find their identity records. The implementation of the project will start with a small test group of about 50 homeless individuals. The team hopes that once they gain their trust and the word gets out about the value of the project, other homeless people will start to seek them out on their own to apply for the service. However, the project did raise some privacy concerns, especially when it comes to the sharing of medical information. While it would be incredibly useful for doctors, if it were to fall into the wrong hands, this information could potentially be very damaging to homeless individuals.

Software tracks and monitors San Francisco’s homeless population

With approximately 7,500 homeless people, San Francisco is another US city with a major homelessness problem. To solve this issue and get people off the streets, city officials have decided to build software that can track and monitor every homeless person in San Francisco. Developed by a Nevada-based tech startup BitFocus Inc., ONE System, as the software is called, collects and sorts information from 15 different city and state agencies, while homeless participants are required to provide certain information as well, by answering a series of questions about their daily routines, medical history, and other personal information. This helps the city evaluate each person’s individual situation and determine the most suitable course of action.

In the five months since the software was first introduced, it has helped around 70 people get off the streets. City officials hope that ONE System will ultimately enable them to cut San Francisco’s homeless population in half by 2022. However, getting people to sign up for the program has been incredibly difficult. “There’s a lot of privacy concerns,” says Chris Block, the director of coordinated entry for Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco, a charity involved in the program. “So far those issues haven’t been significant, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come up in the future.”

Participants are required to give the system access to their medical records, which can be particularly difficult for people suffering from mental illness. There are also fears that the data gathered by the system could be handed over to law enforcement and that the software would be used as a digital policing tool. Another issue is that program members are required to pass a background check to qualify for permanent housing, which can take up to 45 days and requires an identification card, which many homeless people don’t have. While these privacy concerns need to be taken seriously, they are more than likely outweighed by the benefits provided by the program. “For most people experiencing homelessness, when you explain the system and what it will do and how it works, they see the value,” says Jeff Kositsky, the director of the city’s department of homelessness and supportive housing.

A charity in Lincolnshire, England, uses drones to locate homeless people in remote areas

Keeping track of homeless people is a very challenging and time-consuming task, which is why a charity from Lincolnshire, England, decided to try to tackle this age-old problem with an innovative solution – drones. The P3 charity recently started using DJI Phantom 3 drones equipped with high-definition cameras to locate people sleeping rough in remote rural and coastal areas more quickly and efficiently. The footage captured by the drone is live-streamed to team members on the ground, where it’s analysed to identify the quickest and safest route to the homeless person.

While information received from the general public can be invaluable in locating homeless people, it’s also often rather vague, making it difficult to determine their exact location. This task is made even more difficult by the fact that they often change location. “This technology will revolutionise our ability to direct our support to vulnerable people sleeping rough,” explains P3 Service Coordinator Andy Lee. “Because the drone will help us to search vast areas within a relatively short period of time, we will be able to locate people much faster, assess the easiest and safest route to access their location and guide our support workers remotely to them.”

Homeless people are often both physically and mentally fragile, which is why time is of the essence when trying to locate them. By reaching these individuals more quickly, support workers will be able to use the hours they would have otherwise spent searching for them to help them get back on their feet. “Being able to reach a person, assess their situation and begin working with them – after receiving that call from the general public – means our energies can be refocused to ensure the person receives the right support, is safely accommodated and can begin the process of rebuilding their life,” adds Lee.

Big data is proving useful in preventing homelessness

What if there was a way to identify individuals at risk of becoming homeless and step in before that happens? That’s the idea behind a new project launched by the Luton Council, which recently joined forces with the software company Policy in Practice and service design agency UsCreates to devise a more proactive approach to tackling homelessness. “When we don’t avoid [homelessness], not only is it expensive [for local authoritIes] but the cost to individuals is considerable. That means that the interventions become less effective and engagement is much harder. It makes no sense at all for us to wait until someone is at a point of crisis,” says Nikki Middleton, Customer Services Manager at Luton Council.

The council is using big data and predictive analytics to sift through housing benefit and council tax records in order to identify struggling households that may require financial aid, as well as to predict how a specific policy change will affect citizens. “We get a real clear picture of where they are now, and where they’re likely to be in the future,” explains commercial director Jade Alsop. “It’s very different to how others do data, as government and others look at how one reform impacts many individuals. What they won’t get is all of them combined, and the knock-on effect that each of them have on each other.”

With homelessness on the rise in almost every part of the world, authorities are scrambling to find the best solution to this growing problem. As usual, technology can offer a helping hand. Whether it’s by giving the homeless a digital identity hosted on blockchain, building a system to track and monitor them, or using drones to locate them more quickly, technology allows cities to better keep track of their homeless population and provide them with the help they so desperately need. It may even help identify people who are at risk of homelessness, giving authorities the opportunity to react proactively and help them before it’s too late. While it may never eliminate homelessness completely, technology can help these unfortunate individuals restore some of their dignity and improve their quality of life. It’s the least they deserve.

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