San Francisco’s “homeless tracker” has been broken for years

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The city’s database for homeless services has been unable to track available housing units for years, despite urgent calls to fix the problem, resulting in vacant units and longer waits for people on the streets, auditors and homeless agencies say.

The ONE system, which the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) calls “the system of record for all department services,” has never been able to inventory available housing units. Homeless agencies say they raised awareness of this issue before the system was implemented, and an audit documented the issue in 2020.

This frustrates homeless shelter administrators.

“It seems like a simple solution,” said Lauren Hall, director and co-founder of Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing, a housing provider for the homeless. “I am amazed by the amount of resources at HSH. This has created a significant barrier. I just want to take the bus to the shelter and pick up people who are housing our empty units.”

HSH says it’s working to fix the problem, and Hall and others commend the department for transparency and diligence in addressing monumental challenges. But the inability to address an ongoing problem with long-term consequences must be overcome, experts say.

In the fight to help San Francisco’s 8,000 homeless, repairing a database is just one of many challenges, experts say. But it’s also a low-hanging fruit in an orchard of seemingly unattainable challenges. And unlike many other issues the city needs to address, the money is plentiful. The HSH budget for the next two years draws on $1.2 billion in federal, state, and local funds. But the ongoing problem has left hundreds of homes empty, experts say.

Hall’s nonprofit, known by its acronym DISH, and others have been highlighting the problem for years, she says. “Some of us told them at the beginning that the system would not track vacancies. But I guess they had a vision.”

The ONE System (the acronym stands for Online Navigation and Entry) is the technical framework for the “coordinated entry” Strategy for Rationalizing Homeless Services. Homelessness agencies across The City feed data about the homeless into the ONE system – including location, contact information and city service history – which calculates a score that is used to allocate services and housing.

The ONE System was launched to great fanfare in 2018 as Mayor London Breed said the San Francisco timeline“I’m very glad about that.”

“This new system is important because it brings us closer to the bigger picture,” added Breed.

In a 68-page, full-color, five-year plan in October 2017, the department said, “The ONE system will be fully implemented by mid-2018.”

“We can reduce all chronic homelessness by 50% by December 2022,” the plan reads.

But the system wasn’t completed in 2018 or since, and homelessness rates have risen. In 2017, The City reported 6,858 homeless people. The last census from 2019 shows 8,035.

And the “big picture” of the ONE system cited by Breed has never revealed what is perhaps the most important aspect of tackling homelessness: available housing units. In fact, the system can cause The City to lose track of them.

“The clearest evidence of the system’s inadequacies came in December 2019 when the department determined that an estimated 250 units were available and ready for occupancy, but with no referred customers.” a performance test created for the Board of Directors in August 2020. The audit revealed that a third of the housing units that were supposed to be included in the inventory did not appear in the system.

Severin Campbell, one of the authors of the audit by San Francisco-based firm Harvey M. Rose Associates, told The Examiner the issue is resulting in “empty units and increased wait times to get eligible customers into apartments.” Campbell’s team cited “the urgent need to expand the ONE system to include all relevant housing information. The department should prioritize the development of this functionality.”

But two and a half years later, HSH and homelessness agencies say the problem is still unresolved.

The department says it “continues to expand the functionality of the ONE System,” citing work with the maker of ONE System, a Las Vegas company called Bitfocus, “to facilitate housing brokerage and increase the housing stock.” pursue”.

Meanwhile, the computer system that The City calls the “single point of truth for information about homeless shelters in San Francisco” still doesn’t list all available housing units. The city’s housing vacancy data mixes ONE System data with reports from housing providers who are not online.

HSH data shows there were 852 vacant housing units for the homeless in January. Almost a third of them, 293, were not in the ONE system. This means that homeless agencies could not connect homeless people to these units online, although they spent time working with homeless people on the ONE system to enter other data.

“What it doesn’t do is connect to the available housing units,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, a group that has analyzed the city’s homeless services since 1987. A February coalition report quoted footage from the city show as saying, “Not all apartments are represented in ONE.”

Homeless people can also be kicked out of the system if they don’t register regularly, or sent to the back of the line for housing when the city updates records, experts say, a problem reported by ProPublica in February. “The city’s software for tracking vacant apartments is error-prone,” ProPublica wrote, and “information about people trying to get inside is still not accurately recorded.”

At a March 2 Coalition on Homelessness press conference, Tina Collins, a case worker for the nonprofit Code Tenderloin, said she signed up for service on the ONE system and, “When I came back nine months later, I wasn’t even on the system. “

The ONE system is what the federal government classifies as a homeless management information system, and HMIS systems are required of cities by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some homeless agencies told The Examiner the system is relatively manageable, despite the vacancy problem. Bitfocus is a leader in the growing technology sector of homeless data management, serving other major cities such as Los Angeles, San Jose and San Diego. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

And HSH is building believers among many homeless organizations. The audit, which cited the inability of the ONE system to manage housing vacancies, praised HSH staff, writing: “Even with limited staffing and unprecedented external challenges, its staff are among the most dedicated – like many leaders of the COVID-19 Commandos Center (CCC) – and its strategies and goals focused on sustainable homelessness reduction.”

Hall, the housing provider, is frustrated by the ongoing problem with the ONE System, saying “I have great confidence in the current HSH leadership” and Executive Director Shireen McSpadden.

However, the auditors found that HSH failed to spend its entire budget, manage its programs effectively, or recruit much-needed staff.

“The department has filled vacancies year after year,” the August 2020 audit found. “The department needs to prioritize recruitment immediately.” But HSH only recently hired a ONE System manager to oversee a team of “analysts who manage all aspects of ONE System projects”. Two other roles working with ONE System and one role as Head of Information Technology remain open.

HSH says it spent $8.5 million on the ONE system, but show city records $11.3 million in HSH contracts awarded to Bitfocus. The HSH initially did not comment on the different numbers. The city says it has renewed its contract with Bitfocus.

McSpadden, the head of HSH, told The Examiner in a statement: “The ONE system is still a work in progress, with ongoing projects to add functionality, improve data quality and consolidate additional databases. We are getting closer and closer to our ONE System Vision.”

The ongoing work with Bitfocus “will mark the first time the city has a comprehensive picture of its entire homeless housing system,” says the department. “We anticipate that this project will be completed in 2022.”

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