How Can Data Be Used to Reduce Homelessness?

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Welcome to REDI-Updates. REDI-Updates is a bi-annual publication which will get behind the data and translate it into understandable terms. WM REDI staff and guest contributors will discuss various topics, with this first publication focusing on how inclusive growth can be a tool to tackle regional imbalances across the UK. In this article, Josh Swan discusses how cities, local councils, charities and universities are using data to help find new approaches to reduce homelessness. 

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COVID-19 and its impact on homelessness

Everything about homelessness changed in the UK as soon as the world was gripped by the vice of COVID-19. It was feared that the UK government’s pledge to end homelessness by 2024 would be scrapped as priorities shifted. But due to the fact that the homeless cannot follow the government’s advice to stay at home and isolate (and the fact that homeless people as a group are a high-risk category for contracting COVID-19), quick action was taken with £260 million pledged to help the homeless and up to 90% of rough sleepers being supported during the lockdown. But how do we know that this is a permanent policy towards homelessness and not just because the world has been hit by an event that occurs roughly every 100 years? When the lockdown is lifted and the government needs to raise revenue to pay for the biggest subsidisation of the British economy since the Second World War, we may see the figures in homelessness begin to creep up again. If this is the case, can the use of data be a force in preventing a relapse into the way of life before lockdown?

Data and homelessness

What causes homelessness in developed nations? There are many answers to this question from blaming government policy, lack of funding available or drug culture sucking in vulnerable people. The factors involved are numerous as to why this occurs and a rise in big data has led to an analytical approach to solving this crisis. There are many more who are looking at how we can use technology to reduce homelessness and even aim to remove it completely.

Let’s be clear; homelessness is never an individual’s choice, but a product of unfortunate events that they find themselves in or have been forced to accept. In the last decade, government policy has been blamed for a rise in homelessness that could be up to 134% higher, whereas Finland in a similar period recorded a 35% fall and is aiming to abolish it completely. It achieves this by simply giving homes to homeless people– but this is reliant on there being the spare capacity to be able to offer suitable homes to those who need it. Realistically there may not be the resources in place that can offer houses to homeless across all nations. One report suggests councils’ funding has dropped from £10 billion to £2.3 billion in 2015. With councils in the UK under growing budget strain, it makes logical sense to look at technology and data as an intervention and prevention method to save cash-strapped councils.

So how can data be used to help against something as complex and prevalent as homelessness? Councils are beginning to collect socio-economic data on individuals that will raise a red flag if a particular person is at-risk. The councils’ thinking is that prevention is much better for individuals, as well as, being much more cost-effective. Research from Crisis and Nicholas Pleace from the University of York illustrates that once an individual becomes homeless, it becomes much more difficult and expensive to help them. In 2015, it cost the public on average £20,128 for an individual sleeping rough for 12 months, compared to £1,426 cost when there’s a successful intervention. This could save the taxpayer up to £370m per year.

Nikki Middleton, head of Customer Service from Luton Council describes how it can feel uncomfortable to go through data to find those who are struggling, but that it is necessary. Behind the figures are human stories of trauma, substance misuse and poor mental health. Previous methods of data collection were of poor quality and of poor depth, missing essential information and unreliable to be able to target individuals for interventions. Local Authorities are now trying to get more data to learn more about the problem. That is a huge step up from walking out onto the cold streets every year to ‘count’ how many people are homeless like they have done in the United States, which perhaps gives an idea of homelessness from an anecdotal level, but is far from being reliable for councils.

Organisations such as the charity Shelter, are also getting into the data game. Shelter has teamed up with Informatica, a data management company, to help. The advantages of doing so can tap into other technologies such as cloud technology. Essentially, the process of looking after and collecting data is outsourced, allowing the charity or council to focus on the policy and operational elements of prevention. It also harnesses the expertise of these companies in gathering much more reliable data.

As these organisations have large amounts of data at their disposal that they have permission to use, they can begin to develop some tools to use on the front line of tackling this problem. Data collected on individuals can assess the care they require which will help with case management and a faster recovery. One particular individual may have severe learning difficulties, another substance misuse or another with trauma. From individual data, you can start to aggregate particular cases in favour of seeking out patterns- which can be used to judge the areas of greatest need. Location data can be used to create GIS analytics that creates hotspots on a map that can let volunteers know where to go. Organisations can also design predictive modelling to assess how at risk an individual is and how best to help them before their situation deteriorates.

In Austin, Texas, research and trials have begun testing digital and portable identities. Currently, as soon as individuals don’t have accessible paperwork such as birth certificates or any other form of ID, they can become a ‘ghost’ in the system, unable to navigate the obstinate bureaucratic structures that could find them help. Austin is rolling out pop-up clinics to administer portable and digital identities that take the form of a wearable bracelet. Their digital identity can be stored on the blockchain- or an easy access, secure and decentralised server system, very like the system used for cryptocurrencies. Whilst there are privacy concerns about how the data will be used, the data is actively being used to ensure that homeless individuals are not left without a digital identity. Ethical safeguards are needed to be built into any such programme.

Combining the tools of big data, digital identity allocation and GIS mapping, institutions can develop predictive modelling of a homeless person’s ‘journey’, ensuring early interventions can be more effective at an earlier stage in the journey. The University of Essex is currently working with Suffolk and Essex County Councils to analyse large datasets of citizens’ data that can lead to providing additional support to those who need extra help. In this way, data can help an organisation step in and help an individual who is about to lose their house for example.

In short, data can be used to create tools that can help implement what policy alone cannot do. It allows policies to gain a pragmatic advantage over traditional policies and helps decision-makers be better informed. In line with council cuts and difficulties in public funding, the rise in using data is not surprising in the least, but a decisive step in the mission to end homelessness in the UK.

This blog was written by Josh Swan, Policy and Data Analyst, City-REDI / WM REDI

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The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of City-REDI / WM REDI, University of Birmingham. 

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