This App Wants to Track Every Homeless Person in San Francisco

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- On paper, it looks as if San Francisco shouldn’t have a homelessness problem. There are as many permanent housing beds as people who need them. The city spends hundreds of millions of dollars to help get people off the streets, and last year voters approved a measure to raise $300 million annually to tackle the issue by taxing local companies. Yet there are about 7,500 homeless in the city because of soaring rents and the difficulty of treating substance abuse, mental illness, and other health concerns.

Now the world capital of innovation and Big Data is betting that streamlined information is the answer. City officials have spent the past two years building a digital program called ONE System that can track and monitor every homeless person in San Francisco. The idea is simple: Collect and sort information associated with the homeless to more effectively assess risk factors, determine those most in need, and get those people into available shelters and transitional housing. But the reality is more complicated. Five months after its introduction, ONE System has helped get only 70 people off the streets as it contends with the same challenges that have plagued past efforts—as well as new ones, including persuading the city’s most at-risk population to sign on to a program with echoes of Big Brother.

Designed by Nevada startup BitFocus Inc., ONE System collects data from 15 city and state agencies. Homeless participants are asked 17 questions that can help evaluate their individual situation, including time spent on the street, health, and vulnerability. That information—along with a record of the places in the city that a person frequents—is used to create a database that acts as a digital profile, allowing caseworkers to better coordinate health, housing, and histories to allocate resources instead of sifting through mountains of paperwork. “We’re trying to build what I think of as an air traffic control system,” says Jeff Kositsky, the director of the city’s department of homelessness and supportive housing.

The $5 million, 50-employee pilot effort kicked off in August, seeking to assess more than 2,000 people in 90 days. Chris Block, the director of coordinated entry for Episcopal Community Services of San Francisco, a charity spearheading the count, says his team has spoken to double the number of homeless people he’d anticipated, which has “given us a pretty good baseline of who’s the most vulnerable in order to determine housing.”

But ONE System faces immense obstacles just getting people to sign up. City employees must gain subjects’ trust, learn their real name, and persuade them to join a monitoring system. Participants must sign the program’s medical-records privacy protection forms—a tough task for those suffering from mental illness. To get into permanent housing, program members need to pass a background check, which can take 45 days and requires an identification card, something that many people living on the street lack.

People become homeless for a number of reasons that sometimes overlap—mental illness, unemployment, drug addiction—meaning no amount of data crunching can churn out one easy fix. ONE System will also have to combat skepticism about its fundamental creepiness: If authorities discover drug use or violent crime through the tracking system, for example, could it become a digital policing tool?

Block and other authorities say no, but there’s no law governing use of the data, so it isn’t clear what might happen in such situations. Police haven’t monitored the system yet, he says, and “no one is trying to purchase that data, either.” Participants can be removed from the system on request, but Block admits the procedure isn’t easy. “There’s a lot of privacy concerns,” he says. “So far those issues haven’t been significant, but that doesn’t mean they won’t come up in the future.”

Almost half the city’s homeless are already part of the system, which will be fully rolled out in the next few months. As of late January, 20 people had been placed in permanent housing, Block says, and 50 more had been helped off the street through counseling or renewed contact with friends and family. Those relatively modest gains underscore the complexity of the task. Still, Block, a former affordable housing developer, says the goal is to halve the city’s homeless population by 2022. He expects placements to rise to as many as 90 in the next 90 days. “We’ll see a difference on the streets of San Francisco in the next year,” he says.

For Los Angeles, a municipality sprawling across 88 individual cities with a total homeless population of about 60,000, the sheer scope of the problem makes San Francisco’s approach a nonstarter. L.A. authorities also have concerns about the program’s Orwellian overtones. “We don’t track people’s movements like that,” says Peter Lynn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. “It also raises other issues.”

Kositsky, of San Francisco’s department of homelessness, says any skittishness about data collection should be weighed against the system’s benefits. “For most people experiencing homelessness,” he says, “when you explain the system and what it will do and how it works, they see the value.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeff Muskus at jmuskus@bloomberg.net, Howard Chua-Eoan

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