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Overcoming Homelessness With GIS

Ask a person with a home where their residence is located, and they’ll likely have an address, a mailbox and probably even a physical dwelling.

Ask a person who’s experiencing homelessness, however, and describing their fixed place in the world becomes more difficult. Unfortunately, many people undergoing homelessness live unpredictable, nomadic lives. Mapping these individuals to a specific spot is difficult for every level of government.

Geographic information system (GIS) software, however, is helping federal, state and local officials get people experiencing homelessness back on their feet. GIS technology captures, organizes and analyzes geographic data, giving public servants a valuable tool for helping overcome homelessness.

“What does the role of geography and spatial awareness have to do with fighting something like homelessness?” Chris Thomas, Director of Government Markets at Esri, asked Thursday during a GovLoop online training. Esri is a GIS software provider. “It has a to do with getting a finger on the pulse of what’s happening. GIS technology is changing the way we approach humans in crisis.”

Chris Thomas added that geographic data about people undergoing homelessness presents agencies with the opportunity to innovate new solutions to the problem.

“The amount of information that can be deployed against people experiencing homelessness – and shown as useful for addressing it – is expanding,” he said. “This is one of those applications where we go from static information to live information and data that paints a completely different picture of what we’re doing.”

Matt Thomas, who is a Solutions Engineer, Health and Human Services at Esri, said that GIS tools can help agencies understand the various type of information they have. For example, he continued, organizations can combine area demographics with population statistics for new insights.

“There are lots of different variables that we want to include when we consider homelessness,” Matt Thomas said, listing substance abuse, mental health issues and public assistance programs as examples. “You’ll want to determine which is appropriate for your jurisdiction.”

Jared Shoultz, who is a Solutions Engineer, Health and Human Services Lead at Esri, said that the ways agencies can combine their data is nearly limitless.

“There are lots of options that don’t require you to have a model,” he said of the starting point organizations use for data mapping with GIS.

Matt Thomas said that agencies using GIS can predict where more people will experience homelessness based on geographic factors including the cost of living, substance abuse and public assistance nearby.

“This has to do with equity,” he said. “It gives us an idea of which areas might be worth an examination. This helps us plan and manage our resources more effectively.”

Thursday’s speakers shared many examples of how GIS is helping agencies across the U.S. aid their population impacted by homelessness.

Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example, is using GIS to examine the relationship between homelessness and housing affordability citywide.

New York City, meanwhile, is utilizing GIS for tracking people undergoing homelessness with cellphones. City officials can monitor when and where these individuals are checking into homeless shelters.

Chris Thomas said that GIS is ultimately useful as it helps agencies combine their disparate insights and coordinate on how to improve their communities with the assets that they have.

“Homelessness is not focused on a single department or discipline,” he said. “We’re seeing more and more jurisdictions using this technology to communicate.”

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