Follow up to Cellphones for the Homeless

Last week when I was researching for my presentation on providing cell phones to homeless individuals, I realized there was a lot of information about ways this is being enacted, but didn’t have time to fit it into my presentation. A major downside to presenting so late was that I didn’t have the weeks left to write a blog post about it, because I wanted to use my last post to write about tech’s effects on school shootings, in the wake of the news that has been surrounding it the past couple of months on Twitter.

At the risk of getting lost in our closing posts this week, I figured I should write a brief post about what Community Technology Alliance (CTA) is currently doing about providing cell phones to the homeless population, in case it piqued anyones interest.

As I spoke about briefly, CTA has done a lot in the San Fransisco Bay Area to launch a pilot program to get cell phones in the hands of homeless people. The program is called Mobile4All, and although it is an awesome program, it has only successfully reached about 500 individuals so far, and despite my research, I actually couldn’t find any data about the results of the project.mobile4all

Thats not to say CTA hasn’t done anything. It seems that they have repositioned the focus of their efforts from “B2C” to “B2B” in the world of homelessness. What CTA has really been doing is developing technology to help those serving homeless people, rather than the homeless themselves, in hopes to mobilize more than just the people receiving phones.

Community Technology Alliance started in 1991 to work specifically with shelters in Santa Clara County, California. Today, CTA is a nationally recognized 501(c)(3) charity, partnered with major organizations such as Cisco and Google. Their focus has shifted, and their tech has done a lot in the major cities that have adopted it. I’d like to walk through what I’ve learned about some of their technology…

CTA’s Coordinated Entry

As I mentioned in class, one of the most difficult obstacles of finding permanent housing for homeless people is how slow the process moves. Most case workers are extremely backed up, and for the most part need to meet face to face with their homeless clients to communicate and get anything done. Additionally, homeless people will set up accounts with multiple shelters in hopes of improving their chances, and this can create a tangled web when multiple case workers are unknowingly trying to find housing for the same clients. What CTA has done is created an open-sourced tools that tie into agencies’ existing platforms. The goal is to connect data across shelters, and create one main data hub, so that entire cities working with the homeless population are able to leverage their collective data and focus their efforts by not duplicating efforts when it is not necessary. On the other end, homeless clients can go right to one source, and don’t have to waste their own time contacting multiple providers.

Additionally, being able to communicate quickly across shelters holds a lot of value on the day-to-day. Let’s say all of the beds are full for a night in one of the shelters. Tools provided by CTA would allow the full shelters to redirect homeless individuals to other shelters with empty beds, so that less people are sleeping on the street on a nightly basis.

Of course, with an open source technology you have to consider the risks, and evidently CTA has. They take confidential or private information and store it separately from public info, and provide it only to those who are granted explicit access, so that no individuals privacy is violated in this cross-platform system.giphy39

Theres a lot of information available on their website that goes beyond the breadth of my knowledge, but if you want to hear more about their tools, check it out here.

Data/Analytics Reporting

As I mentioned in class, CTA has developed apps that come downloaded on all Mobile4All Nexus 5 phones, but they went so far as to customize an app for those working on the other side as well. CTA has created their H.O.M.E. Web app that is customized to work with all of the data coordination listed above, but also to provide analytics about the data they are collecting, to effectively understand what areas need more focus on the part of agencies. H.O.M.E. collects data on things like demographics and outcomes, length of time homeless, and successful housing placement (along with others listed here). tableau-img

What About Boston?

CTA has reported major impacts in both rural and major metropolitan areas, including Baltimore, MD, Richmond, VA, and across the states of California, Connecticut, and Michigan. But what about right here?

What got me started on all this stuff in the first place is that I occasionally spend time at Pine Street Inn, Boston’s largest shelter. In 2017, the Homeless Census reported just under 6,200 homeless individuals in Boston. Boston is highly regarded for its activism in ending homeless both locally and nationally, and saw a 6% decrease in homelessness between 2016 and 2017. Boston is certainly on the right track, but there’s always room for improvement. When I spoke with the Volunteer Coordinators at the shelter, they were not aware of CTA’s efforts. I’m hoping that by being able to get in touch with the right people at the shelter, the city of Boston might adopt CTA’s technology, and bring Boston a bit closer to ending homelessness as well.

3 comments

  1. JohnWalshFilms · ·

    Hey Jake, awesome post, and you know very well I’m certainly biased toward a post written by a fellow Pine St 4Boston member! I could most definitely see you connecting PSI with CTA and allowing so many of these guys to have cellphones in their hands. I know our group talked about it a lot, but there’s definitely a stigma attached to a homeless person’s ownership of a cellphone – I think many of us were surprised to see that – but a cellphone might be a homeless person’s only source of connection and relationship to others, and it’s invaluable to have an initiative like this. Hope you have the chance to make this happen!

  2. roarkword · ·

    Fantastic follow up post Jake! The coolest part about CTA that I saw was the incorporation of analytics in order to better inform practices toward helping the homeless. Whether it be finding out what demographics are struggling the most, whether placement has been a major issue or if its something else entirely, this should help maximize resources and ensure that Aird goes to the areas where it is needed most. Its refreshing to see big data used in a way that isn’t intensely capitalistic or nefarious. I agree with you in regards to how much better Boston could do for its homeless if they utilized CTA; as a notoriously technology first city, it would make sense for it to be a proving ground for the system (even if we’re a little late to the party).

  3. Jobabes121 · ·

    Great post Jake, and I feel you that I wrote a “content” blog right before everyone wrote his/her reflection blog, and sadly people did not notice it much. However, I thoroughly enjoyed this post and your presentation, and it seems like mobile phone is almost a must-have for anyone seeking a better living, whether he is homeless or not. I wonder if CTA’s attempt to connect different homeless shelters can be extended nationwide, where I assume there are different standards and needs for homeless shelters all over the states. It’s fascinating that CTA is trying to minimize the inefficiency and potentially redundancy in helping the homeless find a place to live, and one of the ways that could ease this consolidation process is government’s help in creating the same standard for different homeless shelters across the U.S. The needs may differ in different regions, but this would give the homeless a larger pool of options to explore and could potentially decrease the number of homeless population systematically throughout the entire nation.

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