Big Data: A Key Part of Ending Homelessness in Connecticut

by Rebecca Allen January 22, 2018

Our local sandwich shop just got one of these very futuristic looking machines.

Unlike the old days when you could only pick one flavor of soda, this machine lets you customize a drink from 100 different choices. But what’s fascinating to me (beyond the fact that the company used technology originally developed to deliver precise doses of medicine to cancer and dialysis patients) is what is happening behind the glowing touch screen. Every time a customer mixes a custom drink, the machine sends the data back to the company – helping them learn about flavor preference, how much soda was consumed at what time and at what location. And that data is used to guide future decisions about what products they offer.

Nothing against soda machines, but what about using big data to fix big problems like half a million-people not having a place to call home on any given night in our country?

I’m proud to say that our home state of Connecticut is trying to do just that.

In March of 2017, a group of funders working with homeless service providers and other nonprofit organizations, began the first statewide analysis of the performance of these service and housing systems. Even if you are not a data lover, read on. This is a story of how a state worked for years to tackle a major problem and how it is turning to data to identify the final steps it needs to reach the finish line.

Connecticut’s Success

Connecticut is a national leader in ending homelessness and the work and dedication of its providers have paid off with big and important gains. Over the past decade, we’ve seen an impressive 24% decrease in the number of Connecticut residents who experience homelessness. We’re also the second state in the country to end homelessness for Veterans and we’re very close to doing the same for people who are experiencing chronic homelessness. And we all—funders, providers, state agencies—are committed to making sure that we prevent homelessness before it happens. If a person or family does fall into homelessness, we must ensure that they are quickly re-housed so they can get back on their feet.

The Path into Data Land

Two years ago, the Reaching Home campaign (a statewide coalition of over 130 advocacy organizations, government agencies, community providers, housing developers, and foundations) commissioned Focus Strategies, (a consulting group that helps communities use data to improve local efforts to end homelessness), to conduct a needs assessment to help the campaign develop a more coordinated data strategy.

Through interviews with community groups and other key stakeholders, two recommendations emerged to help Reaching Home build upon and enhance the impressive efforts already underway in Connecticut.

The specific set of tools we are using is called System-Wide Analytics and Projection or “SWAP.” The SWAP tools are available online for free and any community can use them to look at local data to understand exactly what their system is accomplishing and model what happens when system and program changes are made.

The Funders Collaborative is reviewing data from HMIS (Homeless Management Information System) and the Housing Inventory Count (a count of how many beds/program slots/housing units are available on a given night in the state including shelters, transitional housing, rapid rehousing and supportive housing). Some of the key data points the group is examining are:

  1. Where was a person or family living before they entered a program? Home? Shelter? On the street? Staying with family or friends?
  2. How long did a person/family stay in a program?
  3. How many people/families successfully moved into a permanent home?
  4. How full are our housing programs every night?
  5. How much does it cost our system to support a person or family to move into a permanent home?
  6. After a person or family finds a permanent home, do we see them using our homeless programs again?

Our hope is that by looking at data in ways we haven’t looked at it before we can pinpoint exactly what interventions are working well and matched to the need in each community and what shifts we as funders could make to support front-line agencies to get there.

What’s Next?

In December 2017, the Funders Collaborative and organizations across the state came together to review the preliminary results of the SWAP with Focus Strategies. The initial findings are very encouraging and reflect the impressive level of collaboration between providers in Connecticut. These meetings provided the organizations a first look at performance, an opportunity to ask questions/provide clarification where needed, and help to determine what additional data to gather. All the organizations will have another opportunity to review their data and update as necessary before the final analysis which will be released early in 2018.

We’re hoping the process will help us all identify ways to make the system even stronger and ensure that Connecticut remains a leader in ending homelessness. Stay tuned for a follow-up blog with the results of this work.

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