A simple mobile interface that volunteers can access in the field is helping Aurora tally more accurate figures and provide more targeted services to its most vulnerable citizens.
A homeless man is found sleeping against an office building in Aurora, Colorado. (The City of Aurora)
With the aid of a digital mapping tool called Survey123 by Esri, a Colorado city has increased the accuracy of its annual head counts of homeless people and swept away much of the paperwork in the process.
Aurora, Colorado's new homelessness program director, Shelley McKittrick, said that for the first time, her team has digitized the city's yearly count of homeless residents — a project that led to more reliable figures and better outreach.
Aurora's GIS Coordinator Bill Keever and GIS Specialist Ryan Witsell said that the app — which can be used for many types of data-collection field work — was relatively easy to stand up. The city's teams were given a 10-minute training session before heading out to areas of city known to have homeless encampments. Using cell phones and a single web link, the volunteers collected data about where individuals were living — such as tents, in sleeping bags, alleys, park and other places — in addition to noting age, social demographic and whether the person was residing inside or outside of Aurora's business district. Finally, surveyors pinned sites on a map.
"The process of actually spinning up this application was actually quite streamlined," Witsell said. "I received a list of questions from Shelly in a spreadsheet and I was able to go spin it up in a little over a half an hour, and then just a couple of minutes later Shelly and her team was already out in the field testing it."
In the city's annual count in January, a team of about 40 staff and volunteers found 526 homeless residents, up from 420 in 2016.
"Even though it's just a ballpark figure, it helps us know what percentage of folks are veterans, what percentage are families with dependent children, if they are men or women, who is chronically homeless and the proportion of communities of color in the homeless community," McKittrick said.
That effort was part of an annual nationwide one-night snapshot initiated by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. The statistics are used by federal analysts to determine the impact of homelessness in cities, the effectiveness of housing programs and where Uncle Sam should direct spending to fight the problem. Nationwide in 2016, HUD counted 550,000 homeless people, including 40,000 military veterans and more than 4,000 youth or children. Colorado recorded 10,550 homeless people in total.
McKittrick said she was happy the teams were able to offer one-night hotel vouchers, part of the Denver-area city's Aurora Warms for the Night program that protects unsheltered homeless from freezing temperatures.
"I would say we found people where we expected to find them and what I felt was really interesting from the report is that 63 percent of the folks were in business districts, which means they're staying close to bus lines and urban resources," McKittrick said.
The data uncovered by the counts isn't published, to prevent harassment from bad actors and constant relocation requests from landowners and homeowner associations, but Keever said the map data allows the city new insights when layered over other geospatial data sets.
"We're kind of social scientists here, and so by receiving all of this point-in-time spatial data back, we're now able to join it with 2,000 other layers — whether its economic or demographic, planning oriented or engineering data — that we can combine and understand other spatial phenomena," Keever said.
In April, the Denver Post reported Aurora was preparing to open a new Veterans Affairs hospital and had earmarked $4.5 million to help its homeless populations in the following three years.
"We know that it's a best practice in communities to actually know your homeless, because if we don't know who we're trying to serve, we don't know what to do," McKittrick said. "This point-in-time survey is just a beginning to actually being able to create a by-name list of those in need so we can, one by one, house them and reunite them with family."