Sacramento County Sees Benefits from Online Family Homeless Shelter Reservation Portal

The system fits into ongoing efforts by the county to address a recent spike in unsheltered homeless amid California’s housing crisis.

by / August 31, 2018

California is in the midst of a housing crisis that has many county and city governments facing an unprecedented increase in homelessness.

Sacramento County is no exception. As a result, the county government began a widespread response effort, part of which involved the launch of the Sacramento Homeless Information Network Ecosystem (SHINE).

SHINE involved building an online self-service portal that homeless families can use to register for emergency shelter space. Previously, residents seeking to stay in the shelters were forced do daily check-ins over the phone. The online portal launched in October 2017, and in the first two months of its existence, it took 1,395 online reservations.

Program Director Meghan Marshall said that a major goal of this online system was to lower the barriers that homeless residents faced when staying in the community’s shelters. In addition to building online functionality, this work also involved revising the definition of who was allowed to stay in local shelters as part of a homeless family.

In the past, that definition was limited to two parents and children under the age of 18, plus some other qualifications. Now, the county has expanded the definition of a homeless family to include one or two parents, plus fewer age restrictions so that elderly family members can be included as well.  

SHINE is modeled after a similar program being used in San Francisco, and it also contains a case management functionality aimed at making work easier for public servants. Before its creation, Sacramento County had no case management or tracking system to help facilitate the work that public servants were doing with the homeless. This also meant that the county had little data about its efforts.

“We had no idea what was working or wasn’t working,” Marshall said.

SHINE started life as strictly an online registration system, and the case management functionality grew out of that. Kin Lau, the programmer who helped build the SHINE system, said that with it, the county is now able to monitor back-end information, which includes the ability to actively monitor cases. 

Homeless residents have profiles that can be tracked within the system, as do service providers. It’s essentially a management infrastructure, the likes of which Sacramento County did not have previously.

Another key feature of SHINE is that it asks users a series of questions about their current situations, collecting information that allows the county to prioritize families in terms of who has the greatest need. The previous system — which required daily calls — did not have a component for doing this.

“How we’re using SHINE is definitely multi-faceted and growing,” Marshall said, “but our department is finally at a place where we’re using data to drive development and design.”

Lau said work is also underway to add a mobile app that connects park rangers, city police and sheriff's deputies to the system. In the future, the county would also like to integrate an existing hotel voucher system into the SHINE initiative, creating a public-facing component where motels can register available beds, simultaneously also creating a portal that homeless residents can use to register for hotel space. At present, the county is using a paper hotel vouchers process that’s been in place for the past 30 years, Marshall said.

Zack Quaintance Staff Writer

Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.