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New Tech Gives Aurora, Colo., Most Accurate Homeless Count Yet

City planners adopted a new Web-based application for this year’s count of homeless people and got a much more accurate understanding of how many people are actually bunking on the streets.

The number of homeless people in Aurora, Colo., just rocketed up — and that’s a good thing.

January’s annual Point In Time (PIT) census, required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, identified 526 homeless individuals. That’s up from 420 in last year’s count.

It’s not that the homelessness problem has spiked. Rather, city planners adopted new technology for this year’s count and got a much more accurate understanding of how many people are actually bunking on the streets.

“In the past, volunteers would go to the shelters and survey as many people as they could. But we knew we were missing people who sleep in their cars, people who sleep in alcoves or sleep in tents or in the medians. We have open spaces and waterways, and we know there were a lot of unsheltered people in these areas,” said Shelley McKittrick, who six months ago became the city’s first homelessness program director.

To find those individuals, the city deployed teams of volunteers — 40 people riding in eight vans, all equipped with cellphones bearing Esri’s Survey 123 tool. That Web-based application included a short survey, as well as the ability to pinpoint the location of the homeless individual on a map in real time.

In addition to streamlining a paper-based survey process, the new tool gave the city deeper geospatial insight into the nature of the homelessness problem in a 155-square-mile area with a population of about 360,000. GIS capabilities helped surveyors identify pockets of homeless that had gone undetected in the past.

“We actually have a Walmart in the north of the city that had a dense concentration of individuals sleeping in their cars. That was a new discovery for us, to see how heavily that was being utilized,” said Ryan Witsell, a GIS specialist in the city’s IT department.

The real-time GIS data also helped ensure the city maximized its resources, as census takers could tell at a glance where other teams had or had not been already. “It was a way of ensuring the volunteers weren’t duplicating their work or duplicating the numbers. As soon as they identified someone on a corner, that individual would appear on the map and people would know that that location had been visited,” said Bill Keever, a GIS coordinator in the city’s IT department.

In building a geospatial understanding of the problem, city managers may be better positioned to place future interventions, said Jeremiah Lindemann, a solution engineer at Esri.

“If you want make the problem better over time, you first have to understand where it is in your community,” he said. “When you capture the locations of people, then you can start to ask, 'Where do we place shelters? Where can we put the resources in place?' There is a spatial component to all of that, making sure you are putting those resources where they make the most sense.”

Moreover, the GIS data on the homeless can be combined with other location-based information to build out a fuller picture of city services. “The city can overlay that Point In Time data with other information: economic data, demographic data. They can do further analysis at a community-wide level,” Lindemann said.

Esri is not the only company looking to bring a more streamlined methodology to the annual PIT survey. The Counting Us tool from Simtech Solutions offers a GPS-enabled survey solution, as does Shift3. HUD supports the idea and even offers a buyer’s guide for cities considering a Point In Time mobile app.

In Aurora, the GIS data turned up information that could be used in this way. “It turns out about 70 percent are in business districts, and that’s important for us to know. If people are experiencing homelessness they can be perceived as a nuisance to those areas, so we want to be able to effectively address that,” McKittrick said, adding that criminalizing homelessness is not a focus. "With anything that gives us insight into the reasons why people may be hanging out in a particular place, that can help us to connect them to services and to ultimately make the homelessness brief and nonrecurring."

While the geospatial survey proved a valuable tool in the latest headcount, the city also a leveraged lower-tech approach to ensure it included everyone in the census. In effect, McKittrick manufactured a blizzard.

Despite warm weather, the team activated the city’s cold weather alert, which includes Aurora Warms the Night, an emergency response to ensure the well-being of those without a place to sleep. With the emergency scenario in place, the city’s shelter opened its doors wide, taking in 200 people instead of the usual 140 individuals. Vouchers got 182 people into 62 motel rooms. The effort cost about $4,000 but it put people in places where they could be counted.

The GIS technology was a boon, and the strategic weather alert made a difference. Ultimately, though, Aurora’s success in the annual survey may be attributed to an organizational shift.

Before McKittrick came on the job in 2016, “there had never been a city employee who coordinated the entire Aurora community,” she said. “This has always been carved out of different roles. Community development was the lead, and then the nonprofits who do this work also did what they could, but there was no one person to organize the effort, no one to use our internal resources to up our game.”

Looking ahead, the city will try to leverage the newly acquired GIS data to determine how the best to allocate resources in the day-to-day effort to address homelessness.

“We have outreach teams who are out there every day, they may be in a van or they may be on foot, and now can use this app in their daily activities,” McKittrick said. “Now that we have points on a map, we can start to identify those individuals who are at those different points and understand what their specific needs are.”

Adam Stone is a contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.