The Technology That’s Changing Homeless Services

New Ways to Store Records and Count Homeless Populations

The city of Austin is piloting a new project to give the homeless a portable, digital identity using a blockchain technology.

The project is currently being tested with a $100,000 grant and is in the running for a $5 million program grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayor’s Challenge. The technology will essentially provide a digital footprint online that the homeless can provide to social workers that cannot be lost, deleted, or stolen.

In order to receive social services, you need:

  • social security cards,
  • birth certificates, and
  • drivers’ licenses.

These requirements apply to housing, health clinic, food stamps, disability services, and more.

Tim Mercer, the director of global health at Dell Medical School, is partnering with the project in order to integrate it with medical services. He commented, “When that stuff gets [lost], they just have to start over. If you lose your identity, it’s like you’re a ghost in the system. And it’s hard for a ghost to navigate the bureaucracy.”

Blockchain technology is a way to host information that is incorruptible, easily accessible, and stored on a decentralized server. This way, homeless individuals will not have to keep track of their important papers and can store all of their important documents on this secure server.

Another challenge that cities across the country are facing is counting the homeless. In order to receive federal funding, each city needs to conduct a point-in-time count of its homeless population.

However, they are usually an under-count of the homeless population. As a result, some cities are going digital to attempt to correct the under-count.

In Spokane, Washington, volunteers traveled downtown with tablets in hand, placing a “dot” on a map where they located someone who was homeless. This allowed them to collect the data in real time and observe the areas which were most vulnerable.

Houston has taken advantage of the “Counting Us” app in order to better analyze downtown areas. As a result, the city was able to quickly dispatch outreach teams to the areas of the city that had large encampments of homeless individuals.

Spokane is launching a project called “Hope Works”, which will offer daytime employment opportunities for the homeless as an alternative to panhandling. They are trying to mobilize this program as well.

CityLab Article

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