The Promise of Data and Collaboration in Tackling Homelessness

By Monika Glowacki • December 21, 2016

Cities addressing homelessness face numerous challenges: counting and classifying populations; defining and pursuing actionable goals; harnessing resources to connect varied populations with appropriate aid; and building political will around the cause. To guarantee the economic stability and well-being of their communities, local governments are looking for new approaches to provide stable housing to those in need.

The 16th Convening of the Project on Municipal Innovation brought together mayoral chiefs of staff and two leaders in the field of homelessness: Laura Zeilinger, the Director of Washington, D.C.’s Department of Human Services, and Christine Margiotta, the Vice President of Community Investment for United Way of Greater L.A. (UWGLA). The group’s discussion revealed that tackling homelessness requires collaboration and partnerships across multiple government agencies, service providers, nonprofit organizations and other funders. Moreover, the speakers emphasized that integrated data is crucial to better understanding the services needed by homeless individuals.

The first step to alleviating homelessness is to study the affected population. Too often, a homeless individual’s identity and choice is conflated with lack of housing, but people should not be measured by what they do not have. Individuals who have been incarcerated struggle with reentry and are at a high risk for recidivism if they cannot obtain stable housing upon release. Also, although homelessness is an economic issue, its ties to mental health and addiction are often downplayed. Key services that need to be provided to homeless individuals might include treatment for mental illness and substance abuse so that they have the stability to maintain housing.

In an effort to make homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring, data becomes particularly important for tailoring resources and solutions to different populations with varied needs. What one can measure, one can accomplish. It is not necessary to end poverty to end homelessness. Secure housing is the first step cities should focus on to provide their citizens with a platform for economic stability and opportunity. Stable housing will allow individuals to access government services and empower them to rejoin the community and be successful.

The public wants to feel confident in city leadership on this pressing issue, so mayoral commitment is another critical element of an effective strategy to combat homelessness. The role of the mayor should be that of a convener that brings all the key players to the table to collaborate on an implementation plan for housing that assigns clear responsibilities and holds individuals accountable for their work. The mayor can be helpful in engaging the public and getting landlords to help the cause.

San Francisco’s Mayor Ed Lee took a holistic, “coordinated entry system” approach to ending homelessness by launching the Navigation Center, an innovative shelter model where the city collaborates across agencies and partners with nonprofits to consolidate resources at the Center and make the housing placement process faster and more efficient. The Center also has a joint database in which all the departments and organizations involved with it pool shelter guest information, giving case managers real-time access to integrated data. The Navigation Center served 550 people in a little over a year, with 80% securing stable supportive housing or reuniting with friends and family. The challenge now is to secure enough housing to deal with the outflow.

UWGLA, a nonprofit that works with public, private and nonprofit organizations, pioneered a new approach to ending homelessness. At PMI, Margiotta shared the core features of the initiative, which include building public and political will around the cause, harnessing resources efficiently, and having an effective system for implementation. UWGLA also launched a community-driven initiative called Home for Good, a partnership between UWGLA and the L.A. Chamber of Commerce that combats homelessness with collective impact work. Contrary to the traditional advocacy approach of directing government where to spend money, Home for Good instead asks how the government could leverage private donations and convene a cross-sectoral group that would ensure collective resources are efficiently distributed. The Home for Good Funders Collaborative, a group of private and public funders jointly investing in solutions to homelessness, brought together city officials, the business sector and social justice advocates into an aligned decision-making process to coordinate money that was being spent haphazardly.

The work of Zeilinger, Margiotta, San Francisco’s Navigation Center and UWGLA encourages cross-agency collaboration and data-driven service provision to propel cities in their efforts to help residents experiencing homelessness and enact meaningful change locally. Gathering actionable data and partnering with key actors can empower local governments in better understanding homelessness, motivating more informed decisions about resource allocation and service delivery.

About the Author

Monika Glowacki

Monika Glowacki is a program assistant at the Ash Center. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in Social Studies with a focus on human rights.