Boston’s Coordinated Access System: Technology to Help Homeless Individuals Find Their Way Home

| MSNE Staff

Part of our work in the Technology and Civic Engagement team at Microsoft New England is to highlight key technology projects that are solving civic challenges.  

The Department of Neighborhood Development at the City of Boston is taking an innovative approach to countering chronic homelessness with technology. It is inspiring to work alongside such thoughtful government technologists who take a human-centered approach to making the city a place for all individuals to live, work and play!

— Cathy Wissink, Senior Director, Technology & Civic Engagement at Microsoft

Per the National Alliance to End Homelessness, in January 2016, 549,928 people were homeless on a given night in the United States. Of that number, 77,486 (or one in five) were considered “chronically homeless” individuals. And a number of this homeless population, around 550 individuals, remain chronically homeless in Boston — 220 of which are US Veterans.

So how do we fix this?

Clearly, homelessness is a result of a range of issues, spanning from mental health disabilities to poverty to access to affordable housing. And the City of Boston is looking to address these issues — with the help of technology.

Boston’s Way Home, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s action plan to end chronic and veteran homelessness in Boston, is the city’s tech-forward approach to solving these issues head-on. Through individualized housing and service programs addressing the specific needs of homeless individuals, Boston’s Way Home is utilizing new technology to help end homelessness in Boston.

Boston’s Coordinated Access System (CAS) is a housing match engine that matches homeless individuals with housing opportunities and tenancy support services based on eligibility and length of time homeless. Here, the city is taking a housing-first approach to chronic homelessness, helping people get into a place where they can be stable first, then treating additional issues like mental illness, substance use disorders, or financial instability.

“It’s a lot easier to give people services when you know where they’re going to be every day,” explains Matthew Rouser, Assistant Director, Innovation and Technology for the City of Boston.

Because of these housing matches, individuals are much more likely to be able to work on making healthy changes in their lives, and accept services, once they have a stable place to live.

CAS allows housing navigators to easily coordinate housing opportunities and track steps in the process directly through the platform. This system was implemented early, following Boston’s Way Home goal to house the chronic homeless population of veterans. The city was able to end chronic homelessness among veterans right at the close of 2015. And we’re making progress on the remaining chronically homeless population.

Another initiative launched by the City of Boston to combat chronic homelessness is a digital approach to its Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). While the CAS approaches homelessness from a housing standpoint, the HMIS focuses more on documenting shelter stays, street outreach contacts, and services as well as collecting demographic data on homeless households. Service providers that work with the homeless population (such as mental health organizations, meal programs, day time services, street outreach programs, etc.) are required to record each time a client comes through, and what services are provided to this client. In the past, access to this database has been scattered, with users unable to see anything other than the info their agency entered, leaving their view incomplete. Boston’s HMIS data warehouse is working to unify and clarify this information into one database.

“We’re working to put together a data warehouse that can use machine learning to work to clean up datasets,” explains Rouser, “to get a truly accurate picture of what’s happening with our homeless population. What resources are helping to address the issue? How can we better deliver services to our homeless population?”

Service providers who have access to HMIS can now work on more comprehensive plans: staying in touch with other service providers, keeping themselves updated on client progress, and working to make sure each client is getting all the resources they need.

Boston’s homelessness technology is an agile-based program, being built as it’s implemented (and available open source on github here). The goal is to make these open source projects fully functional through integrated testing environments and getting other communities to implement these ideas.

“What’s really exciting about these two initiatives in this area of work is that we’ve worked with our developers and contractors to do things we’ve typically not done with government,” explains Rouser.

The City of Boston is looking to get these resources into the hands of other cities and government agencies — as well as developers, data scientists, and denizens who are committed to solving our homelessness problem. From there, we can begin to tackle homelessness on a larger scale, all through simple technology.

To date, over 800 homeless veterans and over 300 chronically homeless individuals have been housed. In January 2016, Mayor Walsh announced that Boston has effectively ended chronic homelessness among veterans. Learn more about Boston’s Way Home here. Access the city’s open source resources on github here.

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