GIS strategies helping the homeless

December 2, 2015

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For many Americans, our only thoughts about the homeless population are brought up by the feelings of guilt we experience as we drop spare change into coffee tins, avert our eyes and continue walking. It's not surprising then that many issues regarding the homeless population of the United States have remained obscure.

Fortunately, numerous organizations throughout the U.S. are working to understand homelessness and to develop strategies for reducing the number of people living on the streets. Many have enrolled the help of GIS experts to better grasp the distribution of the homeless population, and to more effectively organize programs and aid. Many of these programs welcome the help of amateurs and volunteers.

Understanding the impact of extreme poverty

Extreme poverty impacts Americans of all ages, races and education levels, albeit some more severely than others. Although there are numerous aid programs both at the state and federal level, often citizens fall through the cracks. As of January 2014, there were close to 600,000 homeless people living in the United States.

A number of GIS projects have been implemented to help gather and visualize data on the distribution of the homeless. One study, which examined and mapped homelessness rates in 25 major cities throughout the U.S. helped to identify which cities had the greatest homeless populations per capita — Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Orlando and Honolulu. The data collected identified cities with decreasing homeless levels as well, and will be used to determine successful policy prescriptions that could be modeled in cities that are struggling to lower their homelessness rates.

Lending a helping hand

Often homeless individuals move from shelter to shelter with limited amounts of long-term stability. According to a study conducted by Bradley University on the lifestyles and goals of the homeless, short-term goals of meeting basic needs often interfere with more long-term goals of gaining stable employment, pursuing education and moving off the streets. The study also found that a critical component for many who did succeed in reaching their long-term goals was that someonereached out to them.

In cities such as Milwaukee, bi-annual counts of the homeless population help to address the need to reach out to the homeless by determining the focus of aid distribution and funding. The city worked with the company GIS Cloud to develop a Mobile Data Collection Portal, which ensures volunteers are collecting unified data, and alerts them if certain neighborhoods have already been surveyed. Ultimately, the data collected shows trends in the homeless population and helps the city evaluate if aid programs in homeless hotspots have been successful.

Interfaces for volunteers to make a difference

Additional projects have also utilized mobile GIS technology to allow volunteers to collect real-time data associated with the homeless that can be used by local economic development teams to organize funding and aid. For instance, DeKalb County, Georgia’s Community Development Department created a mobile application using GeoForm, an ArcGIS platform by Esri, to allow volunteers to enter GPS data associated with the location of homeless individuals during surveys. This information is used to target individuals for housing assistance programs.

In cities such as New York, some organizations have developed simple phone applications that allow users to submit information regarding homeless people or vacant properties to GIS databases daily. The data can then be used to identify properties that can be utilized for housing assistance programs, which can be a much more efficient use of a limited city budget. Maps such as these have been leveraged to encourage policymakers to become more aware of problems, and to pass more powerful legislation regarding the homeless.

Homelessness is a problem that has received limited attention within the United States. Thanks to the hard work of many community development professionals and volunteers, this is starting to change. With the help of GIS technologies that enable greater visualization of the distribution of the homeless, and more uniformed data collection, homelessness issues are finally becoming a focal point of social justice and social policy. 


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