Using GIS to Solve 3 Common Problems in Helping the Homeless

Using GIS to Solve 3 Common Problems in Helping the Homeless

Geographical location is often overlooked when designing and evaluating homeless services and programs. However, advanced modern technology has made methods such as geographic mapping more accessible to Human Services.

One such example is geographic or geospatial information systems (GIS). GIS is an important tool for communities that want to define and target geographic problems commonly faced when helping the homeless.

Although GIS can transform the way we understand homelessness, many communities are either unaware of this tool, or are unsure of how to use it.

This article explains how GIS relates to homelessness, and how to use it to solve three specific problems in homeless services:

      1. Accessibility
      2. Social and environmental factors
      3. Hard-to-reach youth populations

GIS technology enables us to better understand (and thus respond) to these three common problems. We can identify patterns in accessibility issues, clarify the relationship between various social and environmental factors, and locate and serve seemingly invisible homeless youth populations.


What Is GIS?

Definition of a geographic or geospatial information system (GIS): A system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present all types of spatial or geographical data.

Simply put? GIS links data to its geographical location.

GIS Lounge describes this well, explaining that GIS incorporates spatial data (data that in some way references locations on the earth) with attribute data (additional information about the spatial data) in order to map, analyze, and assess real-world problems.

For example, the actual location (e.g. zip code) of a client is spatial data – additional data such as the age and income would make up the attribute data. Combined, these two data types can show the zip codes within which clients of certain age and/or income are located.

So, homeless-services providers can use GIS technology to combine spatial data with attribute data to solve challenges in their communities using strategies they never even knew existed.


How Do We Access GIS Data?

There are several different ways to access data from geographic information systems:

  • HMIS integration. Specific HMIS software systems are integrated with data visualization tools that can combine map data visualization with powerful analytics. This means that data entry, reporting, and GIS techniques can all be conducted in a single interface without having to switch between softwares and applications. All the data you need is there at your fingertips.
  • HUD eGIS StoreFront. HUD provides a free eGIS library of existing geospatial datasets, web-based mapping tools, and more.


How Can GIS Help the Homeless?

Now that we understand what a geographic information system is and how to access it, let’s talk about how to apply it to efforts to help the homeless in our communities.

We’ll discuss each of the following three problems in the context of GIS, including common challenges and different questions to consider for each.


Problem #1: Lack of Access to Housing and Services

For many communities, homeless services are already established. Shelters are in place, affordable housing is increasing, and service providers are ready to accommodate. However, there are still structural barriers, (i.e. obstacles that prevent an eligible person from getting available benefits), such as where program locations and the atmosphere or environments of these offices and shelters.

Using information gathered from a geographic information system, one question we can answer is Where are the homeless located in relation to where housing and service providers are located?

GIS technology can identify the correlation between the locales where the homeless are concentrated and where shelters, affordable housing, and services are located. By combining a layer of zip code data with a layer of addresses for service providers and housing, you could generate a map that easily visualizes this data.

For example, the map below combines two sets of data—locations of homeless populations, and locations of public and affordable housing—to study whether resources are located near those in need.

View the full interactive GIS map of San Francisco homeless population, public housing and affordable housing. View the full interactive map (created by CartoDB user Bill Levay).

As Geospatial Solutions notes, this data visualization shows larger concentrations of the homeless population located near downtown and the South of Market area where there are only a few scattered public housing sites. However, there is much more public housing grouped together in Chinatown. This information is important, and should be used to inform future decisions about where to locate resources.

Another example comes from one of the communities using Clarity Human Services HMIS software. The Southern Nevada CoC used this HMIS software to create a ‘jurisdiction’ custom field within the HMIS so that whenever a homeless client enters a community program, this jurisdiction data will be captured. This custom data shows whether a client originated from any of Southern Nevada’s main jurisdictions or known homeless encampments, or if they’re coming from areas of town that aren’t currently a primary focus of outreach efforts.

The goal of Southern Nevada will be to produce a map outlining this data to inform decisions for more targeted outreach and funding needs. For example, this map could potentially secure more funding for homeless outreach if it indicates there is a higher service demand in areas of the city that Southern Nevada doesn’t currently have the capacity to reach due to funding restrictions.

GIS can answer other questions, such as: How accessible is public transportation in these areas? and Does shelter quality affect the rate of unsheltered homelessness in an area?

Understanding the issues that affect accessibility is key to such decisions as shelter policies and program design.


Problem #2: Understanding Various Social and Environmental Factors Affective Homelessness

Health problems, substance abuse, lack of quality public education, and criminalization measures are just a few of the numerous issues that cause and/or perpetuate homelessness.

Social and environmental factors vary for each community, making it important to study the specific neighborhoods in which homeless populations live. A geographic information system can help communities do just this.

Examples include What neighborhoods host the most Section 8 Vouchers?

Communities can map where clients with vouchers are being housed in real-time. This requires a data visualization tool that is integrated directly with an HMIS to ensure homeless clients are not collectively housed in the same area, preventing the artificial creation of isolated, low-income neighborhoods.

Another great example comes from a New Republic article, exploring the correlation between where Section 8 vouchers are used and where other factors are prominent, such as race, income, education, unemployment, and teen pregnancy. This data is shown below.

GIS map of three different cities in Westchester County, New York. Compares concentrations of homeless housing vouchers to several different demographics and social factors. Source: New Republic.

HUD affirms that when voucher holders are placed in already-existing bad neighborhoods with minimal job opportunities, low high school graduation rates, and high crime rates, the chances of escaping homelessness are greatly reduced.

GIS can answer other related questions such as Which criminalization measures are in place within certain areas? and Do certain areas have prevalent health hazards that perpetuate or exacerbate homelessness conditions?

Having a clear visualization of this data can help service providers decide where to focus community interventions such as health screenings, vaccines, and rapid re-housing programs.


Problem #3: Finding and Effectively Helping Homeless and At-Risk Youth

We know that homeless youths are a difficult population to locate and help. Many youths are unaware they qualify as homeless. And if they are aware, they often refuse the label and the services associated due to embarrassment around peers.

In addition, depression, anxiety, and associated histories of abuse and betrayal can intensify their distrust of adults, shelters, and support services. As a result, this marginalized population is largely under-counted, and therefore under-served.

There are several ways to approach the challenges in finding and helping this population. Below are a few examples of questions to consider, and how to use GIS to understand them.

Where are the street “hangouts” that homeless youth frequent?

Communities can map the known locations of adolescent homeless clients and use those as reference points to find others. They could study the similarities between these locations (e.g. coffee shops, access to Wifi, drug hot-spots, volume of sex trafficking tips) to predict other locations where homeless teens may hang out.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness also suggests partnering with organizations who work specifically with youth at-risk of or experiencing homelessness. Formerly or currently homeless youth volunteers will have special insight into where other homeless youth congregate. Producing a map that visualizes this data helps communities determine where to send outreach teams.

The City of Houston produced the map below to visualize where homeless teens can be found, including bus stations, hotels, parks, and housing.

View the full interactive GIS map of homeless youth hot spots in Houston. View the full interactive map here.

Additionally, leading up to the annual PIT count, communities can preselect homeless teen “hot spots” to target, increasing the number of youth counted who would have otherwise gone unnoticed.

GIS can answer other questions related to youth homelessness, such as Where are the best locations to establish drop-in centers? and Which neighborhoods should be targeted for youth reentry services?

Answers to these questions are crucial to understanding youth homelessness in your community.


In Sum…

Geographic information systems have become a fundamental tool to understanding and addressing homelessness in our communities. By combining geography with the critical information we already collect from clients and programs everyday (plus additional data we decide to capture or curate for specific purposes), we can transform the way we respond to the populations we serve.

Using GIS technology, communities are better equipped to solve common problems of accessibility, social and environmental factors, and hard-to-reach youth populations. GIS allows professionals to see these issues in a different light, empowering them to determine unique solutions for their specific communities.


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