Jen Padgett leads a team that powers the back-end support for those on the front lines of the fight against homelessness in Silicon Valley.
She knows it’s inhumane to think of someone living on the street as just another number. But as executive director of the Community Technology Alliance, she also knows that assigning numbers to those who sleep in doorways and under bridges can be the first step in saving their lives or at least turning their lives around.
“It was really important for us to have a really true picture of what we’re dealing with,” Padgett says when we meet at the alliance headquarters in a San Jose neighborhood of tired office buildings tucked along a freeway.
Padgett and her crew of 11 crunch numbers. They crunch numbers on how many county residents are homeless and how many are possibly about to be. They crunch numbers on who asks for food and who gives it to them. They crunch numbers on who among them has AIDS; who suffers addiction; who is a veteran; who seems to spend as many nights in the emergency room as out on the street.
In this era of data mining, Padgett’s data is a gold mine of information not only about who is homeless, but about how they might have gotten that way and, more important, what is likely to be the best way to get them off the street for good.
It seems like homelessness has always been with us and many days it seems like it always will be. It’s not the sort of problem that any one agency or organization — even one stuffed to the gills with data, the currency of the 21st century — is going to solve. But the efforts of the nonprofit technology alliance are a reminder of the good technology can do beyond entertaining us, selling us more stuff faster and increasing productivity and profit.
“I really believe in what we do and how we can make a difference,” Padgett says.
The alliance works with dozens and dozens of social service agencies on a dizzying number of initiatives, but one of the newest and most promising is Housing 1000, a countywide plan to place 1,000 of the hardest-core homeless in housing by July 2013. To do that, it helps to know who the hardest core of the homeless are. Last summer volunteers went out, some with an alliance-designed smartphone app, in an effort to identify the most vulnerable homeless in the county. They asked homeless people a series of health-related questions and questions about how long they’ve been on the street to determine who were in the most peril. They took their pictures, with permission.
And the alliance started crunching.
Housing the chronic homeless is a nationwide trend. The toughest cases frequently end up in the emergency room, hospital or jail. And so, homeless advocates say, it can cost three times as much for them to live on the street as it would to place them in housing with treatment services. In Silicon Valley, the technology alliance is working to move the homeless into homes along with a team that includes: Destination: Home, a program of the The Health Trust; the city of San Jose; Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara County Collaborative on Affordable Housing and Homeless Issues.
Jennifer Loving, executive director of Destination: Home, says her outfit is using the alliance’s data to circle back to the most vulnerable homeless people in the county. It’s starting with 20 — 19 of whom have been on the street for more than 21 years each.
“One guy, he spent 58 years outside,” she says. “One of the women we’re trying to find right now? She’s 76.”
For some, it’s too late. “We know at least two have died since we started to look for folks,” Loving says.
It’s hard to believe that in Silicon Valley, home to some of the wealthiest enclaves in the country, people die on the street. But they do. Dozens every year. (The number this year is 61.)
The Housing 1000 folks hope to change that. The technology alliance’s data provides a profile of the homeless that they can take to politicians and philanthropists. And eventually, it will help advocates and others sort out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to moving people off the streets.
It’s a huge job, but people have actually started talking about ending homelessness. No, it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. But as technology and the Community Technology Alliance move forward, it will be far easier to see just how close we are coming and how far we have to go.