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Houston Homeless Count: Volunteers Use Tech To Connect People With Housing

With the help of tablet computers, volunteers gather data that could help get more people off the streets and into housing.

Brandon Oliver and Ellie Hemmatt are making their way down the service road of the 610 Loop near Kirby. They’re volunteers for the 2016 Homeless Count, and their goal is to find and survey homeless individuals across the city. Oliver and Hemmatt spot some tents tucked behind the tall bushes lining the roadway. But if anyone is inside, they’re not interested in talking.

“Yeah, we shouldn’t,” Hemmatt says. “If they don’t want to come and talk with us, they have every right to.”

It was tough to find people outside on January 26, which was a dark and rainy morning. But, as Oliver explains, volunteers are trained to spot places where homeless individuals may be taking shelter.

“Typically when there’s a lot of trash or alcohol, the bottles and the cans and stuff like that, it typically tells of an area where a homeless person may be,” Oliver says.

The annual count is mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. It helps cities track how well their efforts to curb homelessness are working, and determines how much federal funding local programs get.

In Houston, the homeless population has been steadily declining for years. Those smaller numbers have allowed volunteers to go more in-depth with each individual survey.

“What we do is we ask a series of questions, their name, their date of birth, where they previously lived, which helps us to understand whether they owned their own house prior to becoming homeless or maybe stayed with a friend or family member,” Oliver says.

In previous years, the count took place on a single night. Volunteers tallied the numbers, including some interviews, and all of that information was recorded on paper. This year, volunteers spent three days interviewing each of the homeless individuals they encountered. They used tablets to instantly log that data into an online system.

The system ranks people on a scale of 1 to 10, indicating how vulnerable they are of not surviving if they stay on the street. Individuals identified as the most vulnerable get high priority for housing.

Marilyn Brown is president of the Coalition for the Homeless of Houston and Harris County, which organizes the annual count. She says volunteers for the 2016 count conducted 40 assessments on the spot, and all of those people are now on the waiting list for housing.

“And with this data, we will know people by name to be able to really check off the list of, yes, these are the people who are considered chronically homeless, and we know where all of them are sleeping,” Brown says.

Houston has seen some major milestones recently in addressing homelessness.

Last June, former Mayor Annise Parker announced an end to veteran homelessness in the city. To be clear, that doesn’t mean there are no homeless veterans in Houston. But every veteran in the city now has access to permanent housing should they choose to seek it. Brown says they’re working to achieve the same thing with chronic homelessness.

“It’s like when you cure a disease,” she says. “You still have to take the medicine, and so to solve homelessness, we still have to have interventions in place because there will continue to be people coming into the system.”

Last year, the group counted 4,609 homeless individuals, a drop of more than 700 since 2014. Brown says they expect to have the 2016 total by this summer.

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