West Sacramento, Calif., Uses New Tech Platform to Address Homelessness

Through the Startup in Residence Program, city workers collaborated with developers to create Outreach Grid, a program designed to improve municipal efforts to address homelessness.

To combat homelessness, the West Sacramento Police Department has begun using a tech platform called Outreach Grid, which the agency helped create by collaborating with developers as part of the Startup in Residence program in 2016.

With Outreach Grid, case workers and other public servants in West Sacramento can now map homeless encampments, consolidate client info from multiple agencies into one platform and customize intake forms based on needs. Other cities across the country have developed similar tech-based improvements to their homelessness outreach efforts, while at the same time almost universally agreeing that data collection, logging and sharing are long-standing problems.

Mark Sawyer, homeless outreach and services coordinator for the West Sacramento Police Department, said he particularly appreciates Outreach Grid's GIS capabilities.

“It’s a GIS mapping tool, largely, and that’s its primary function,” Sawyer said. “When you think of an issue such as homeless encampments, it can be very difficult to have an on-the-ground overview of the situation because it changes every day.”

Homeless encampments have become more common in Northern California as the state continues to battle a housing crisis. These encampments have historically been difficult for jurisdictions to track because they are transient in nature, often shutting down or being moved to other parts of the city.

Outreach Grid, however, gives Sawyer a tool that can map the camps, populating visualizations with information he enters, taking data he enters and turning it into a bird's eye view of homeless encampments in the city. Before the program, Sawyer didn't really have an effective means for creating illustrations of camp sites, which he said is important for policymakers and other stakeholders who make decisions.

Developers with Outreach Grid also plan to add an app later this year that allows the public to enter info about camps they see, so workers like Sawyer can quickly verify new ones that pop up.

“With the implementation of Outreach Grid, I can tell the people who need to know how many camps there are, where they are and how many people are out there and in need of services,” said Sawyer.

He also praised the platform for its user-friendly interface. While Outreach Grid is currently only being used by West Sacramento, Sawyer said other jurisdictions have contacted him to ask questions about it.

Outreach Grid was born out of Startup in Residence (STiR), a 16-week program that connects municipal governments with startups that want to create technologies that tackle civic challenges such as housing, transportation, the environment, public safety and, in this case, homelessness. Outreach Grid was founded by Tiffany Pang and John Cadengo, who formed the company to participate in STiR.

Pang said they worked closely with the West Sacramento Police Department, making several trips to the city during the development process and also keeping in touch with personnel like Sawyer who would use the finished product every day, holding weekly meetings via Skype and taking notes about feature requests and other desired updates.

While Sawyer was most taken with the mapping capabilities, another functionality that has proven useful is the way the platform centralizes information about the homeless. Due to the wide-spanning nature of homelessness, individuals tend to interact with many public agencies — from the housing authority to the health department. As such, information about their needs gets spread through several different recording systems. What Outreach Grid does is make it so there is one specific location where social workers and others can log and access that info.

“One of the key moments that we had working with the city was when we sat in a meeting with a lot of different agencies in Yolo County,” Pang said. “It was a monthly meeting, and it took them a month to just come together and share information.”

And even though Outreach Grid was developed in collaboration with West Sacramento, Pang said the mapping and information-sharing tech that her team came up with has the potential to be used anywhere.

She also praised the STiR program for making it easy for her work in gov tech. Before participating, she was working at private tech companies in San Francisco, where she would see the homeless around and want to help.

“I just felt like I needed to do something,” Pang said. “I wanted to be part of a solution to something that was bothering me, and I turned to civic tech because I was a software engineer at the time and wanted to use the skills that I had.”

More technologists may soon get the chance to do the same. Organizers recently announced that STiR, which was created in San Francisco in 2014 and previously limited to four cities in Northern California, will soon expand to Washington, D.C., marking the beginning of its evolution into a nationwide program.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine