The City of West Sacramento has started using mapping software to locate homeless camps as a way to monitor the local homeless population and direct them to public assistance.
Once fully implemented, the Appledore platform could signal a breakthrough in how the City directs services to the needy. Rather than homeless individuals needing to enter government buildings and fill out public assistance paperwork, or social workers descending upon homeless camps with a stack of questionnaires, those experiencing homelessness can simply dictate their personal information to social workers from the encampment where they live and have grown familiar.
“Most the occupants of the camps are elusive by nature and aren’t coming into the door to get services and help,” says Mark Sawyer, homeless services coordinator for West Sacramento Police Department.
“We have to come to them,” he says. “We have to come into the field.”
Appledore was developed by two Bay Area engineers who partnered with the city last year during Startups in Residence, a program that transformed the city governments of San Francisco, Oakland and West Sacramento into tech incubators to help the public sector.
Under the 16-week residency program, the engineers followed the day-to-day work of public servants and then developed web applications intended to streamline government. At the end of the program, the cities were given an option to approve a contract to continue using the platform. In January, West Sacramento signed the contract with Appledore.
For the Startups in Residence program, the West Sacramento Police Department initially requested a mobile app that would allow police to instantly provide homeless individuals with vouchers for food, shelter and transportation.
Public employees are now using a scaled-down version of that idea, but the app’s developers say the platform can be expanded after local agencies overcome privacy and legal concerns associated with data sharing.
“When they are ready to share data between different agencies, we would be able to turn on that functionality,” says Tiffany Pang, co-founder of Appledore.
Here’s how the app works: Sitting at a computer, public employees look up the location of a homeless camp they visited in-person and drop a pin, informing other employees of its GPS coordinates. The location can be tagged with different colors that classify it as occupied, abandoned or cleared and available for different use. Notes can be affixed to the pin informing public employees of the number and gender of people living in the camp.
It may be awhile before the software is vetted and embraced by a variety of public departments that provide services to the homeless. But if that happens, a social worker could use the app to instantly pull up notes left by another social worker on the client’s needs, and updates on efforts to match that person to public assistance. The City also hopes to link the encampment data to existing crime data to understand what types of crime may be occurring close to encampments.
The Appledore app cannot match the homeless to housing, but in the past, West Sacramento took an innovative approach to that goal. In 2014, the Bridge to Housing program moved 65 people living on a river encampment into a former West Sacramento motel on W. Capitol Avenue owned by the County of Sacramento. Local authorities shuttered the encampment because the property was going up for sale.
The Bridge to Housing program was only possible for a select population because the closing of the encampment was designated as a federal displacement action, a move that lifted the camp’s inhabitants to the front of a federal waiting list for Section 8 housing vouchers. Sawyer, the city’s point-person for homelessness, says he still regularly receives calls from people without a home requesting a housing voucher. Unfortunately, he says, he cannot accommodate them.
Appledore gives the City a bird’s eye view of all homeless encampments so that social services and public safety departments can work together to address the situation. While outdoor camping isn’t legal and encampments can be dismantled, Sawyer stresses that the city gives individuals numerous options for social services that will “improve their life” before a person is removed from their encampment by law enforcement.
Since the City cannot afford to house its entire homeless population in motel units, Sawyer says his top priority is giving one-time grants to newly homeless people who need help covering a move-in deposit for an apartment they will ultimately be able to pay for.
For the chronically homeless who lack the capacity to sustain housing on their own, Sawyer says he is advocating the City to identify funding for a permanent supportive housing site.
Sawyer admits that projects like Bridge to Housing and Appledore cannot, in themselves, significantly reverse the problem of homelessness in West Sacramento. But he argues they show creative thinking toward the intractable problem.
“They help, but it’s not the whole thing,” he says. “But there are not a lot of cities of this size doing things like this.”