Tackling Homelessness with Data: The City of Santa Rosa, California
Like many communities across the United States, Santa Rosa, California has seen its population of homeless citizens increase in recent years. In 2016, there were more than 3,000 homeless people in Sonoma County, 1,900 of whom lived in Santa Rosa. That same year, Santa Rosa city council declared an official homeless emergency, a move they hoped would enable the city to remove barriers to and gather public support for long-term solutions to the crisis.
“Public interest was high,” says Eric McHenry, Chief Information Officer for Santa Rosa. “The main questions were around what can we do for the people in need.”
This group included women, children, veterans, and “trimmigrants,” laborers who come to the city to work in cannabis fields. Interest also came from merchants and residents of Santa Rosa who were feeling increasingly unsafe. “The way you feel drives more than anything else, even data,” McHenry explains. Citizens demanded to know what the city planned to do to address the issues. McHenry says the answer was clear. “We will provide compassionate care wherever appropriate.”
In order to determine the best way to provide that care, McHenry turned to the data. “I gathered department heads from parks and recreation, water, police, fire, and IT to start to get a sense of where Santa Rosa was with respect to homeless counts, services, camps, police calls for those camps, etc.” IT worked with department heads to gather datasets, which posed an interesting challenge.
Public safety datasets were robust but, due to the nature of the information which ranges from arrests and incidents to fire and medical service calls, systems were locked to protect people’s privacy. Because of these privacy concerns, the city manager and city council and the public couldn’t just pull those datasets. So, McHenry and his team at Santa Rosa partnered with Sonoma County to explore datasets on police and fire department calls for service. To better understand the data, McHenry turned to Socrata.
From Open Data and Open Performance to Citizen Connect
Santa Rosa launched their open data portal with Socrata two years ago, using it primarily for payroll and service data, which was of particular interest to the press. In April 2017, McHenry’s team debuted their Open Performance dashboard at a city budget meeting, highlighting and tracking goals around fire safety, IT, city hiring, economic development, and more.
“We’re ready to base decisions on data rather than gut feel or past knowledge,” he explains. Santa Rosa currently has roughly 55 performance measures they are monitoring.
“As we worked to launch our dashboard, the topic of homelessness and affordable housing emerged as our number one issue. We didn’t have a good sense of the impact homelessness has on the public, businesses, and city services; we only had anecdotal data,” says McHenry.
Two things helped address that lack of knowledge. The first was working with the police and fire departments and asking them to tag incidents as being related or not related to homelessness. The second happened at Socrata’s Connect conference in Washington D.C., which McHenry attended in 2017. He worked with Socrata developers to launch a Citizen Connect platform for Santa Rosa. Citizen Connect automates the information needs of a city council and their constituents. It surfaces information around public services, community facilities, and citizen inquiries.
McHenry’s team has turned Citizen Connect into a tool for addressing homelessness. “Using Citizen Connect, we learned that, over time, homelessness-related incidents accounted for upwards of a quarter to one half of total calls for service. We can view live spatial and temporal data.” In fact, McHenry and his team are able to have
these conversations in real time. “What we like best is how fast and responsive Citizen Connect is when looking at spatial data and heat maps. The platform renders maps very quickly.”
Data-Driven Results and Insights
In a short time, McHenry’s team was able to gather new insights about homelessness. They began working with partners, including Catholic Charities, and sharing the data. “For example, we had an agency providing services for at-risk kids who sometimes move into homelessness. They (and their neighbors) were concerned their location was increasing the number of police calls for service but the data showed there had been no increase in police and fire calls since they started operations. This view of the data puts [residents and city officials] in the same place with understanding what is happening in our city,” he says.
The police department also benefits from the ability to better interpret and understand data. “We were really happy to work with Socrata on understanding and sharing time of day data,” says McHenry. “We realized there was a spike in service calls around the time when shelters open and close. This helped our police chief determine the optimal amount of staffing. After viewing the data, he realized it didn’t make sense to have a flat level of staff, so he’s shifting his officer staffing to peak times.”
The heat map view in Citizen Connect also helped the fire department understand their role better. For many cities, the fire department takes more medical calls than fire-related calls. This was no different in Santa Rosa. “We looked at a particular hotspot for calls for service, and noticed a high volume of fire calls and a low volume for police. It was an area with one of our city sponsored homeless shelters.”
McHenry spoke with the Chief of Police, the City Manager, the Director of Homeless Services, and others to determine why. They learned the City was funding a person to be on staff at this shelter and that employee was handling numerous incidents that would have otherwise resulted in (unnecessary) 911 calls. “We realized we should be funding staffing for some of these shelters. It’s started a discussion around how are we spend our money and whether we should invest more in on-site services. Now, as we release an RFP for homeless services, we will include more about funding staff onsite to reduce the calls to police for services. We know all of this simply because the density of the heatmap was very different in this one particular location.”
The heatmap in Citizen Connect has also helped the City begin to form a plan for homeless encampments. “Like a lot of cities, we have specific areas of homeless encampments and have identified the higher risk areas with Citizen Connect,” says McHenry. “There is a higher risk of fire in some of these encampments. Additionally, we’ve identified other priority areas downtown. There are close to 70 homeless people under three highway overpasses, which results in a high number of service calls .”
Executive Buy-In and Next Steps
All of these results and insights have happened quickly, in just three months of work. McHenry credits the success to a large IT department, his seat on the executive staff, and the support of city council.
“Without these things, everyone would be too busy to invest in open data,” he says. “At our budget hearings, all department heads were told by city managers that we were doing this, investing in performance goals and exploring the data.” McHenry says that more than half of the council questions are about performance measures and that this high level commitment is key. “That’s why we’re getting more money to invest in investigating homelessness in this fiscal year,” says McHenry. The council also created a new department called Housing and Community Services and the director is now the point person for all City homelessness initiatives.
What’s next for Santa Rosa? McHenry and his team will determine how to measure performance goals for homelessness initiatives. “Through discussions with the City Council, we decided to focus on the transition between homelessness to sheltered or homed. The Council wants to see a certain number of individuals homed, so our approach is called Housing for All,”
He adds that the team hasn’t determined all of the performance measures for the success. “We’ll look at affordable housing and work with the planning director, plus partners, agencies, and the County,” he says. His team also plans to study and learn more about homeless shelters. “Are our winter shelters at capacity? Should we build more and, if so, where should we build them? These are all questions we plan to address with data,” says McHenry.
McHenry also plans to focus on improving data collection. “We don’t have as much outcome data as we need,” he explains. “We are in the second phase of maturity as far as looking at and doing things with data. We are counting well and our accuracy is correct but we are working on translating that into outcomes measurement.”
Above all else, McHenry stresses the importance of data. “I think the fundamental discussion of the impact of any organization should be grounded in data. Data doesn’t drive results but it does inform decision-making. Always speak from a place of data.”