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Builders construct new data-tracking system to assist curb homelessness in Seattle space

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(King County Regional Homeless Authority website screenshot)

With help from Seattle-area tech and philanthropic partners, a team of data scientists with King County has been developing a homeless response system dashboard that parses data from multiple sources, including shelters and behavioral health service providers. The goal is to record each interaction a person experiencing homelessness has with the system, building a more complete and human-centric picture of what it’s like to be homeless in King County.

“Even though it’s just scratching the surface, this is transformative work,” said Owen Kajfasz, community impact officer for the King County Regional Homeless Authority (RHA).

For years, King County’s homeless population was measured by teams of volunteers who would canvas the region by foot, taking a rough census of people living unhoused outdoors — in tent cities, on sidewalks or in sheltered corners of public spaces.

The informal census was widely considered far from perfect, and long-standing chronic underreporting may have played a role in undercutting the county’s efforts to solve its growing homeless problem. At last count, the in-person census estimated that just over 11,000 people were experiencing homelessness in the Seattle region.

“If the problem was really 11,000 people, our system could probably handle it,” said Anne Martens, a spokesperson for RHA. “But it’s 40,000.”

The so-called point-in-time reporting system was flawed for the obvious reason that it was impossible for volunteers to contact every person living unsheltered in the region, even with shelters reporting data as well. Compounding the underreporting problem, people living outdoors in public spaces make up just a fraction of the unhoused community.

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“Every year we continued to put significant resources toward (the point-in-time count),” said Kajfasz. “And then everyone says, that’s an undercount.”

Last year, the RHA announced it would no longer be relying on point-in-time counts. Instead, the agency will look to an ever-expanding pool of data to understand the full picture of homelessness in the Seattle area.

“Even though it’s just scratching the surface, this is transformative work.”

The homeless data effort was initially supported by funding from the Gates Foundation. Now the RHA is turning its attention to building a “By Name List” database, supported by pro-bono development work from Seattle-area tech professionals. The By-Name tool would make it possible for each person using homelessness services to have a private profile that tracks and helps manage their personal experience.

The RHA describes it this way in a one-pager: “People experiencing homelessness will have direct access to and control over their information, as will those working to help them move into stable housing. It is intended to be a single source for all of the information needed to facilitate connections to services and opportunities for shelter and housing.”

RHA’s data work comes at a time when the local housing market is pushing many people out, and a contentious debate over how to create more affordable housing rages on. As demand for homeless resources grows, the RHA has faced criticism for being slow to finalize contracts with partners across the region.

The RHA data initiative is separate from the another public-facing data dashboard initiative that Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell will unveil Tuesday as part of an update on the city’s plan to address homelessness.

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The public dashboard that lives on the RHA website now is organized around questions of equity, responsiveness, and resources. Among other trends, it shows that people of color are disproportionately likely to be homeless, and that at least 25% of the homeless community is living unsheltered. It also shows that in 2020, for the first time in years, the number of households entering the system was lower than the number of households exiting.

But due to the nature of data reporting, the system is still provider-centric right now, which allows for gaps in data. Christina McHugh, the county’s regional housing and homelessness evaluation manager, estimated that roughly 7,000 people experiencing homelessness didn’t show up in typically reported data from 2020.

“What can we do to bridge that?” McHugh said. “We (have to) embrace the complexity of how people experiencing homelessness interact with the system.”

The goal going forward is to shrink those gaps so more people can be connected with services — and ultimately housing. 

The big question McHugh said the data can hopefully answer: “From start to finish, what is a person’s experience of the system?”

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