One of the best examples of a government agency using tech to bolster its efforts to address homelessness can be found in Bergen County, N.J., where officials recently certified their jurisdiction as first in the nation to end chronic homelessness.
Chronic homelessness is a classification for individuals who have been homeless a year or more, as well as those who suffer from certain disabilities — and eliminating it was a landmark achievement for the county of nearly 1 million residents, located just across the Hudson River from New York City. This was not the first time, however, that Bergen County’s efforts to address homelessness were recognized on a large scale. In August, Bergen became the first jurisdiction in the state to eliminate homelessness among veterans.
Prior to that, Bergen County was recognized nationally in 2010 for a tech-based measure it implemented to collect data. Back then, the county began using biometric devices — fingerprint scanners, essentially — to collect information daily about who comes in for things like computer use, meals, showers, laundry and the phone. These devices have been helpful tracking efforts to help both the homeless and those at risk for becoming homeless, said Mary Sunden, executive director of Christ Church Development Corp., a nonprofit contracted by the county government to provide sheltering operations and outreach.
Data collected by biometrics is then compiled into a national Homelessness Management Information System platform required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Bergen County, however, has taken that system further and built a platform that allows them to add additional info as they see fit, creating a more robust picture of the population they serve.
“When there’s a housing opportunity, we always know who is the most vulnerable person who already has everything they need in order to be housed,” Sunden said, “and that’s the person who goes into the next available opportunity.”
The tech platform Bergen County uses is not only comprehensive, it’s also ideally suited for use in the field. Sunden can use her smartphone to access it, or she can print a paper version if need be. She said the combination of biometrics with this platform has made a huge difference in the county’s efforts.
Sunden is able to design daily, weekly and monthly reports with the data collected, and she’s able to discuss them with her team, as well as people who stay in shelters, with whom they go over obtainable actions to make progress in a housing plan.
Since stamping out chronic homelessness, Bergen County efforts have shifted to address individuals just below that status. Sunden said she’s not sure exactly what the data will reveal, but that’s not a bad thing.
“I almost never like to ask myself what it is that I want to find out, because having an expectation of a result colors the data when you’re looking at it,” Sunden said. “So, I don’t do that. I ask myself very general questions, like how many people are there, simple things, how old are they, where did they come from, how did they get here, and what do they need. Then try to let a picture come from the very granular level information.”
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.