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Data key to ending homelessness

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Argus, seen here volunteering at Black Circle, is among the many agencies joining the fight to end homelessness in Bermuda (Photograph supplied)

Data matters for decision-making. Every business executive, policymaker, charity leader and homemaker knows the higher the quality of relevant information on hand, the better decisions are likely to be.

Finding an effective response to homelessness in Bermuda is no different. Data that enables us to understand the scale and nature of homelessness, and to measure progress in addressing it, is fundamental to the effort to end it.

Only by standardising the definition of homelessness — which has been lacking in Bermuda and most of the the world — can we meaningfully quantify and track it.

The consultative draft of the Plan to End Homelessness, due to be implemented next month, proposes that someone lacking one or more of the three domains that constitute a home under European Typology on Homelessness and Housing Exclusion — physical, social and legal — should be defined as homeless.

On this basis, Home identified 811 people experiencing homelessness in 2023, as detailed in our annual report which was published last week. Home or another agency had direct contact with each of these individuals to confirm their situation. However, a degree of under-reporting is inevitable.

The “hidden homeless” — typically people staying with relatives, friends or neighbours on an unsustainable basis, or those avoiding identification for fear of stigmatism — fall under the radar. Crisis, a British homeless charity, has estimated that more than 60 per cent of those experiencing homelessness are “hidden”.

It is also important to keep track of those at risk of homelessness, defined in the plan as those “who do not have sufficient resources or support to prevent them from becoming homeless within the next six months”. Prevention is far more cost-effective and less distressing for the individual than allowing them to lose housing. Home has prevented 107 new cases of homelessness over the past two years.

The critical role of data in efforts to reduce homelessness is acknowledged internationally. Through studies of its member states, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development recommends integration of diverse data sources to develop a better understanding of the needs of different homeless populations.

Bermuda’s Plan to End Homelessness envisions a central system capturing everyone experiencing, or at risk of, homelessness, with data supplied in real time by all agencies working in the homeless and housing sectors. A central system would have potential benefits going beyond information collection, with the establishment of data-linkage systems across healthcare, homeless services, housing, criminal justice, substance misuse, financial assistance, immigration and employment services.

Such a network could be in practice a powerful enabler of a co-ordinated, whole-system response to homelessness, focused on the needs of the individual. Over the past two years, Home has been working with technology that could fulfil this role. Known as In-Form, a cloud-based application powered by Salesforce software, it is designed specifically for the homeless services sector and is used by some 280 organisations, mostly in Britain.

The vision is for all agencies in Bermuda to use the same system, creating “one front door”. Imagine the difference this would make for individuals in crisis who may need different types of help from multiple agencies and, under today’s system, may not know where to turn first. Clients entering the single front door of the multidisciplinary case-management system would be presented anonymously. Multiple agencies would be alerted to their needs in real time, enabling more efficient access to services.

They may need Home for accommodation and Dignity House for mental-health support, while the Bermuda Housing Corporation would know that in three months this person will be ready for long-term housing. So, everybody works together to provide necessary support for the same individual without the burden on the system that results from a fragmented approach.

For service providers, the system would create massive efficiencies. A probation officer who could today spend hours calling around to find accommodation for a client, for example, could in the future log on to the central system to find available beds rapidly.

An integrated system could also provide valuable insight on the journeys individuals take through the homelessness system — insight we rarely gain from existing disparate and incomplete data sets. Increasing our knowledge about intervention outcomes, effectively humanising the data, would help us to better align individual needs with essential services.

Such benefits are recognised by the Homelessness Research Institute in the United States, which highlights data’s value to inform improvements to service delivery and shed light on resource gaps.

To gain optimal value from the whole-system approach, new data sets would also be needed, particularly pertaining to housing and poverty levels. While it is well established that Bermuda is in the midst of a housing crisis, the island does not capture a standard data set on a timely basis to monitor the demand and supply of social, affordable and private-sector housing. This is sorely needed to inform policies and solutions.

Likewise, there is no effective monitoring of the levels of poverty, a frequent cause of homelessness. Such data could be the basis of an early-warning system triggering necessary interventions to prevent new cases of homelessness.

Our default, crisis-response approach to homelessness results in a heavy economic and financial burden on the community. Quantifying that burden, and the dollar benefits of the Plan to End Homelessness, would make clear the economic case for ending homelessness.

Just as data plays a growing role in other aspects of our lives, it will be critical to the success of Bermuda’s efforts to end homelessness.

Denise Carey is chief executive and executive director of Home

Denise Carey is chief executive and executive director of Home, a charity with the purpose of ensuring everyone in Bermuda has a safe, stable and sustainable place to live, and that new cases of homelessness are prevented. Contact her at denise@home.bm. To view Home’s 2023 annual report, or to donate, visit the Home website at www.home.bm

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Published April 03, 2024 at 8:00 am (Updated April 02, 2024 at 6:56 pm)

Data key to ending homelessness

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