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Sunday, February 25, 2024

How an App Can Help Fight Homelessness

Bleary-eyed due to the 5:30 am check-in, I zigzagged through bulky-jacketed volunteers gathered in the library basement toward my team. We were preparing to interview homeless individuals for the 24-hour Point in Time (PIT) count held across the US in late January.

Everyone on my team was drawn to our town’s first PIT count for different reasons. As a high school principal, John saw families and teens struggle with homelessness. While volunteering at a free health clinic, Monica, a retired nurse, met people fearful of losing their homes. And I knew how quickly life could change after losing our home to an explosion of toxic mold 19 years ago.

John, Monica, and I decided to rotate through the interviewer, notetaker, and lookout roles on the team. We grabbed backpacks of gifts for interviewees, I pulled on a reflective vest that I borrowed from the local utility company, then checked to make sure I had my cell phone, reading glasses, gloves, a tiny flashlight, and the password for Counting Us handy.

Several mobile apps are used to collect PIT count data across the country, but Counting Us is the first and most widely used. The app was developed by Simtech Solutions in 2012. Matt Simmonds, president of Simtech Solutions, says “in order to fix a problem, you have to understand it. That is where we come in. There is a person behind each number.” Built specifically for the US Housing and Uban Development PIT count, Counting Us is a GPS-enabled surveying tool used to gather PIT count data in 50 regions across the US.

Ana Rausch, vice president of program operations with The Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County, says Counting Us helps the organization “do more, cover more people, and provide more accurate numbers in a user-friendly fashion.” She says her team didn’t have time to interview everyone under a paper-based system, so they had to count at night and interview a sample of homeless individuals during the day. Decision tree question sets based on interviewee demographics (youth versus adults, individual versus household) were cumbersome and time-consuming, relying on paper and clipboards. The app saves time, which allows people in cities like Houston to interview each homeless person they count, instead of sampling selected individuals. Similarly, the app instantly uploads clean, useful data, which eliminates weeks spent deciphering interviewer notes and keying in paper responses. The fact that the app is easy to use also attracts more volunteers for the PIT count. Every interview is tied to a specific geographic location, which helps advocacy organizations create action plans or petition for specific resources.

Kyra Henderson, director of systems change for the Texas Homeless Network, says the PIT interview “may be the most positive interaction for the day” for many interviewees. Since “the majority of [people in] the US are one to two paychecks away from being homeless,” she says, PIT interviews are both helpful and important.

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Simmonds says Counting Us provides data about common themes of homelessness for youth, veterans, and other groups so appropriate resources can be utilized. Data collected via the app allows communities to “help as many people as possible with the resources available,” he explains. Simmonds says homelessness sends a ripple effect through the community, impacting jails, emergency rooms, tourism, and more, so reducing it also has far-reaching impacts. Henderson agrees and says those interested in reducing homelessness should consider participating in a local PIT count themselves.

Our interviews began within minutes of reaching our assigned territory, a Walmart parking lot. The interviewees we spoke to all patiently waited as we read each question and pecked at the cellphone screen. Only one camper declined the interview and gift bag. Even so, he was counted: We entered his demographics into the app’s Observation section, used for interviewees who are sleeping, unwilling to participate, or unapproachable.

It was nearly daylight when we noticed a rusty Ford van idling at the lot’s edge. John shook hands with Peter, an elderly balding man in a white stained T-shirt sitting in the driver’s seat. Peter wouldn’t turn off his van because he was afraid it might not start again.

After several questions, Monica softly inquired, “So it started when your wife died 10 years ago?”

Peter pulled age-spotted hands over his eyes and silently wept, then exhaled slowly, “Everything fell apart when I lost her.”

Monica continued with the scripted questions after Peter wished aloud for gas money to return to Florida. Our training emphasized that volunteers cannot give, or carry, money, so we couldn’t oblige. At the end of the interview, Peter thanked us for the gift bag.

As I drove home after the interviews, I felt guilty for wanting a hot shower. Sadness overtook me as I pictured Peter’s hands. During our two-year mold ordeal, I had wondered if our living situation would ever improve—then watched it deteriorate despite our best efforts. Like Peter, I used to sit in my car and cry.

I knew there were good reasons PIT volunteers shouldn’t carry or offer money, but I’d signed out at that point. I grabbed some cash and a few snacks and went back out. Peter’s van was still there, still running, when I handed the gifts through the window and said, “We all need hope—and hope comes in many forms.”

Peter’s expression rotated between smiles and tears, sometimes both. I leaned against the van wheel well and cried softly in tandem with him. Then I wished him the best, and he blessed me as I walked away.

A wave of gratitude washed over me when I got home, walked into our hallway, and inhaled clean air. We were ill, frightened, and overwhelmed when forced from our mold-contaminated home 19 years ago. But a librarian’s gift of a dictionary for my son’s homework assignments provided me with hope. Hope that our house would be remediated and we’d move back home. Hope that people cared.

Innovative housing programs are often the outgrowth of community members asking "why doesn't someone do something?" and then doing it themselves, using HUD grants based on need and PIT count data. HUD allocates money for programs supporting its mission “to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all.” HUD grantees include state and local governments, nonprofit and for-profit organizations, public housing authorities, tribal entities, and communities interested in ending homelessness. Grantees must demonstrate the extent of homelessness in their community using data provided by the PIT count.

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Matt Simmonds repurposed the Counting Us app in 2017 to help Houston rehouse 2,000 Hurricane Harvey evacuees living in the convention center. After the hurricane, data couldn’t be collected by computer due to widespread power outages, so a mobile app, which could collect data in the field—even offline—was an ideal option. Then a spreadsheet of needs (medication, diapers, clothing, etc.) for all the evacuees was created and populated in two days—much faster than would be possible using a purely paper-based or computer-based tool.

Show the Way, Simtech’s latest app, provides mobile case management for homeless individuals. The app enables outreach workers to locate needed resources, request assistance, and track interactions, which provides assistance (identification, health care, other needs) and builds on prior steps. Show the Way helps transition people out of homeless encampments and is used by first responders in some communities.

HUD canceled the 2021 PIT count due to Covid-19 concerns. Due to surges in cases, some communities requested permission from HUD to postpone their 2022 count to late February, while other communities canceled their counts. Covid-19, cancellations, and late changes make it difficult to attract and train volunteers. Readers interested in learning about volunteer opportunities can search the HUD grantee by name, state, or program type or Google their county and “Continuum of Care (CoC).”

I can’t solve homelessness, but I do know hope is critically important and comes in many forms. A kind smile, a listening ear—even a dictionary—can make a huge difference. Caring enough to show it can change someone’s life.


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