Homelessness is a major problem in the United States — according to the White House Council of Economic Advisors, over half a million Americans experience homeless on a single night. Efforts to address this crisis face major barriers, including quantifying the magnitude of the problem in the first place: the annual federal Point In Time (PIT) counts are widely understood to under-count the number of people experiencing homelessness by a significant margin—some experts say by half or more.
To address a problem as dynamic and complex as homelessness, data needs to be captured and used in a better way. Organizations on the ground need real-time, quality data to coordinate services, measure the outcomes of their interventions, and make informed decisions about allocating limited resources.
Community Solutions is on the front lines of making that vision a reality for organizations on the ground. Through the Built for Zero initiative, Community Solutions and its network of partner cities are driving to zero homelessness by raising the bar on how data is used in the sector.
Community Solutions initiated a pilot in Denver with Metro Denver Homeless Initiative (MDHI) to do exactly that, with additional support from the Tableau Foundation Service Corps Mission Projects and MovingWorlds. Continue reading to see how its work is advancing collaboration among local agencies to ensure that everyone in metro Denver has a safe place to call home.
Repairing a Broken Relationship with Homelessness Data
MDHI leads a multi-agency collaboration called the Continuum of Care (CoC), which coordinates services and housing for people experiencing homelessness across the nine-county Denver Metro area. Effective collaboration requires data to be easily recorded and accessed across agencies, but with the existing Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) that was far from the case.
In fact, for MDHI and many other agencies in the CoC, the existing system was a burden rather than a tool to advance progress. MDHI Data Analyst Matt Richard explained that “The data available about the population we serve was incredibly unreliable and difficult to access. The reporting tools were woefully insufficient for the needs of our community, to say nothing of the confusing user interface. End users viewed the old system as a burden — it seemed like a lot of busy work to capture data in a system that they never, ever saw any benefit from.”
MDHI found itself in a position to change that perception and advance progress when it became the lead HMIS agency for the CoC in 2018. The old HMIS system was replaced with a new one offering improved functionality, and Community Solutions provided MDHI team members with Tableau Desktop licenses and access to Mission Projects volunteers for training to help them get the most out of the data they were now able to capture.
Building Internal Capacity to Leverage Data to its Fullest Potential
MDHI has a team of only four dedicated staff supporting approximately 60 organizations with more than 500 end users interacting with the new HMIS in their region. With the new tools, Matt explained, “For the first time in our community, we finally had all of this data at our fingertips, but we were struggling to find the best way to tap into it and disseminate it in meaningful ways to our partner agencies and community at large.”
This was a perfect data challenge for Tableau employees to take on through the Foundation’s Service Corps Mission Projects program. Piloted in 2019, selected Tableau employees have the opportunity to volunteer their expertise to build up nonprofit grant partners’ ability to see, understand, and do more with their data – a transformative experience for all involved.
Frannie, Jason, and Jeremiah, hailing from Tableau’s strategic customer success and engineering teams, traveled to Denver for three weeks to embed within the MDHI team, kicking off the project with a Built For Zero Learning Session to help them understand the unique characteristics of homelessness data. Reflecting on the session, Frannie shared, “I learned about the limited resources and time that folks have, and just how important it is to find efficiencies anywhere we can.” Jeremiah echoed this focus on creating value, sharing that “One of our big interests is how can we help spread that value that we’ve discovered (…) to make it easy for people to get their hands on the data and to understand it, so that they can better solve the problems they’re trying to solve.”
MDHI did not have any type of interactive, community-facing dashboards or visualizations to easily communicate their progress or the gaps in services and resources that needed to be addressed across the agencies in their community.
That need informed the goals of the Mission Project, which included “learning how to isolate specific segments of the community [they] served (like Veterans experiencing homelessness), being able to measure and communicate the impact of [their] services, and being able to quickly and easily share data with partners through community-facing dashboards in Tableau Server to improve [their] homeless crisis response system.”
Building on his training from the Mission Project, Matt and his team dove into their data to create the first iterations of dashboards to share within their community. The first visualization shows how many veterans were enrolled in projects funded by the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) in 2019. The second visualization represents the flow of those veterans into and out of VA-funded projects over the same time period. Together, these reports allow any agency in the homeless crisis response network to gain an in-depth understanding of the types of services being utilized (or not) by that specific sub-population and identify opportunities for improvement.
“For MDHI and our partner agencies…having the ability to easily see what the population we serve looks like (in real time, with interactive dashboards and visualizations) was a huge win we wouldn’t have achieved without this Mission Project,” Matt shared. Step by step, dashboard by dashboard, they’re getting close to being able to “accurately track each individual person experiencing homelessness in [their] community [to] improve [their] ability to connect [the individuals] to the appropriate programs and resources that can help end or prevent their homelessness as quickly as possible.”
When it comes to addressing complex, systemic issues, harnessing the power of data is essential. Being able to visualize and analyze data in real-time enables organizations like MDHI to not only target their own efforts more effectively, but to also empower community partners and Government Agencies to do the same.
MovingWorlds and the Tableau Foundation are dedicated to going beyond one-time contributions to supporting sustainable, long-term change. Before this project came to a close, the Tableau volunteers left thorough documentation for Matt and his team to reference, and nonprofit partners like MDHI can reach out to Tableau Service Corps at any time in the future for help. Matt’s new skills as a result of this project have even helped him make the case to his executive board for expanding his team, building future capacity even further!
We’re grateful to Community Solutions and MDHI for sharing their inspiring story of leading change with us, and to the Tableau Foundation for facilitating the transfer of knowledge and expertise to make it possible. If you’re a Tableau employee interested in using your skills to help nonprofits leverage data for impact, learn more and apply to a future Service Corps Mission Project here.