by Meridith Levinson

Government I.T. – Can IT Help the Homeless?

Oct 15, 20023 mins
IT Leadership

San Francisco spends more money per capita on homeless services than any other city in America, says San Francisco County Supervisor Gavin Newsom. With direct services, shelters, hospitals, police and paramedic costs, and shopping cart retrieval programs, he estimates the county spends roughly $250 million per year on homeless services. In spite of all that funding, though, as many as 200 homeless people die on the streets of San Francisco every year because they’re not receiving proper care. And the problem isn’t improving. From 2000 to 2001, the number of people on the streets rose36 percent. So what gives?

Newsom believes the cause is a “remarkably dysfunctional” bureaucracy of disparate social services agencies without the proper IT infrastructure to share data and coordinate services. “We have a system where there are a couple hundred empty shelter beds every single night, and yet there are thousands of people sleeping on the streets. How is it possible that we have empty shelter beds? One hand doesn’t know what the other is doing,” says Newsom.

To improve interagency coordination, Newsom has 30 separate proposals to reduce homelessness, one of which is on the November city ballot and many of which hinge on IT. He wants to establish a centralized system for admitting new beneficiaries into social services programs. He also wants to install a LAN to enable agencies to share information about individual cases, collaborate on creating customized case management plans and track a person’s progress toward independence. As well, he hopes to equip outreach workers with wireless PDAs so that they can evaluate beneficiaries they meet on the street and submit that information in real-time to the agencies treating those people.

Although his ideas sound noble, Newsom’s proposals have created a stir among homeless advocates. One of the proposals will outlaw panhandling on certain strips and another calls for wider deployment of a finger-imaging system network?which homeless advocates associate with the criminal justice system?to track the progress of homeless folks as they move through the social services system.

Newsom says he has RFPs out for the PDAs and hopes the department of human services can start rolling out the network for the finger-imaging system by the end of the year. While San Francisco’s liberal mayor Willie Brown is in favor of his conservative colleague’s initiative, San Francisco’s vocal, organized advocacy community could derail Newsom’s efforts come the mayoral elections in November 2003.

If his plan is approved, Newsom says the effort that will go toward creating a “boundaryless” homeless services system will be well worth the $1.5 million price tag. “The payoff will be turning someone’s life around,” he says.