Can technology lead to better policy on homelessness, poverty and other urban problems?
Editor’s Note: The Digital Communities Special Report, which appears twice a year in Government Technology magazine, offers in-depth coverage for local government leaders and technology professionals. It is part of the Digital Communities program, a network of public- and private-sector IT professionals working to improve local governments’ delivery of public service through the use of technology. The program — a partnership between Government Technology and e.Republic’s Center for Digital Government — consists of task forces that meet online and in person to exchange information on important issues facing local government leaders and technologists.
In 2010, the Anchorage, Alaska, Police Department closed 190 homeless camps that were hidden in parks and the woods that surround the sprawling city of nearly 300,000. By 2016, the police closed five times that number — nearly 1,000 illegal camps. The explosion in camps can be attributed to a variety of factors, including the lack of affordable housing in recent years, an extremely low vacancy rate overall and problems with alcoholism and drug abuse. But it adds up to one of the highest per capita rates of homelessness in the country.
Not surprisingly, closing the camps drove many of the homeless into the city’s overcrowded shelters, especially in the winter months. Nor did these actions address the mental health and medical issues that affected many of the adult homeless. With so many camps scattered across the city and little information about their location, providing outreach and services to the city’s most vulnerable residents was difficult, to say the least, according to Nancy Burke, the city’s housing and homeless services coordinator.
But when Burke met with Tina Miller, the city’s geographic information officer, they hatched a plan to use digital maps and data to monitor camp locations and to start coordinating services for the homeless as the camps were being closed. Using software from Esri, the mapping company, Anchorage began surveying the homeless population for an accurate count twice a year (1,128 during the latest census in 2017). They created mobile apps for the police and Department of Parks and Recreation to help with pinpointing the location of camps, now in the hundreds, throughout the city. A public-facing app also allows city residents to report camp locations.
More accurate information about the camps and the number of people living in them means the city can do a better job aligning outreach services, so that the homeless don’t keep returning. “I’ve been working in this field for 13 years, and this was the first time we had access to this information,” said Burke. “It’s so critical to how we plan safe shelters and housing.”