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Finding beds and services for the homeless? There’s an app for that

The heavily used app on the cellphones belonging to Buena Park Police Officers Cory Boudreau and Lindsay Cruz is called Outreach Grid. But it doesn’t guide them to a place to eat or the fastest route on the freeway; this app has a far more urgent purpose.

Outreach Grid helps find shelter and other services for homeless people, assisting the officers to get those people get off the streets of their city quickly and efficiently.

Using the app, Boudreau and Cruz can reserve an open bed for a homeless person at the recently opened Buena Park Navigation Center,  turning a process that sometimes used to drag on for days or even weeks into something closer to 15 minutes. Many of the issues once handled by hand — filling out paperwork, assessing an individual’s living and mental health situation, and connecting with groups that provide homeless services — are pre-programmed into Outreach Grid.

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The officers — partners in Buena Park PD’s Community Impact Team –are unequivocal in their attachment to the tech.

“We love it,” said Cruz.

They can thank a pair of millennials in Irvine, who started developing the software in 2016 after working in the Bay Area, where the suffering of homeless people in San Francisco spurred them to social action.

Information bubbles

It’s about as easy to find an open bed for a homeless person on Outreach Grid as it is to reserve a hotel room on Booking.com.

“We can pinpoint a bed right there and then,” said Boudreau, who became part of his department’s Community Impact Team about 18 months ago. That move came when he realized that about 90% of the calls he responded to as a regular patrol officer were “transient related,” and there were few alternatives to address their issues.

“You were just kind of kicking the can down the road.”

Now, Boudreau and Cruz spend their 10-hour shifts focused on homelessness. A county mental health clinician rides with them one day a week as they cruise city streets, visit known homeless outposts, and respond to calls.

During a shift just before Thanksgiving, a final stop included a visit with a couple who, most nights, sleep near a light industrial building on Dale Street.

Boudreau and Cruz know them well. Deborah Ann Floyd and Robert Shore both struggle with alcohol; Floyd, 54, once worked a caregiver and Shore, 57, used to do carpentry and electrical work. The two are in and out of shelter, lasting days or weeks, until they fall off the wagon.

And, on this day, they are ready to try again. This time, they say they don’t want to go into a shelter as a couple; too much drama. They want separate beds in the men’s and women’s sections at the shelter. But a quick check on Outreach Grid shows no beds are available for now; they’ll have to wait for openings.

“You want to go?” Cruz asks.

As Floyd dances and laughs and runs about, Shore answers for them both. “She needs to go. I need to go. I don’t want to be out here no more. It’s hard out here. I’ve had enough.”

There’s a chance they’ll get in soon. The app lets the officers keep on top of the “inventory” of shelter beds. And with a reservation, people in Buena Park get priority.

“Availability changes every day,” Boudreau said.

Locally, Outreach Grid is used most by the North Orange County Public Safety Task Force, a four-year-old coalition of police agencies and cities that has grown to include 13 communities. The task force takes a regional approach to issues such as homeless outreach, youth violence, and helping criminals re-adjust to non-incarcerated living.

The task force was awarded $20 million in state funding over a four-year span beginning in 2017, with the money set to expire next June. At least $330,000 of that money has been spent on Outreach Grid.

The app is the gateway to a software platform that allows users to plug in pertinent data about homeless people. Color-coded pinpoints  — orange, purple, green — open up on a map showing where some people were last known to stay. Hover over an orange dot and details about that individual pop up in an information bubble; name and date of birth, demographic information, city ties, and special concerns ranging from disabilities and military background to pet ownership.

Before contracting with Outreach Grid, task force officers could find it challenging to coordinate services for the homeless people they encountered on the street, said Soo Kang, assistant to the city manager of Stanton and point person for the task force.

In the past, the bed-finding routine of calling a shelter day after day, with long waits and a slim chance of success, made placing someone a crapshoot.

“It was like calling a radio station to win $1,000,” Kang said.

Even with the app in hand, homeless people still fall through the cracks. But that’s happening less frequently because in the past year three new shelters have opened in Buena Park, Placentia and Fullerton, making more beds available. Outreach Grid adds to the new climate by making it easier to track people as they migrate through the area and are assisted by different agencies handling various services.

Two years ago, a homeless survey identified 1,837 homeless people in the north Orange County communities that are part of the task force. About 1,375 of those people gave their names and other identifying information to the census takers, which included people from the task force, nonprofits and the homeless services provider City Net.

Those people are now known, collectively, as Project 1375, a sort of study group to see how well (or how poorly) the task force addresses homelessness.

By tracking that group on Outreach Grid, Kang learned that, by early October of this year, 450 people had “street exited,” a term that means they found some sort of housing, anything from a rented room or subsidized housing to living with family or friends or even an emergency shelter bed.

Outreach Grid has provided the technology to stay engaged with those individuals and others who are newly homeless in the area. It’s also let providers integrate all the different bits of data to see a bigger picture.

“This was built from the ground up,” Kang said of Outreach Grid. “They consulted with the users – law enforcement, service providers, homeless people.

“We liked that.”

Between October and November, the software showed that the task force had contacted 80 people who were newly homeless in the area, Kang said. The data also showed that of the 60 new arrivals who requested shelter, 45 actually went and, by the end of last month, 20 remained housed.

“We will never say Outreach Grid will end homelessness,” Kang said. But, she added, “it’s promising.”

Coders with purpose

Tiffany Pang, 30, is the chief executive officer and co-founder of Outreach Grid. Her boyfriend, John Cadengo, 33, is chief technology officer.

Pang grew up in San Francisco, got a degree in neuroscience at Yale, and moved back home after deciding not to pursue a career in medicine. She went to work for the grocery delivery service Instacart.

Pang said the chaos on the streets of the city she returned to, where the homeless population was exploding, deeply disturbed her.

John Cadengo, left, Outreach Grid chief technology officer, and Tiffany Pang, CEO, in their Irvine office on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. The app that they created maps out homeless shelters, camps and other places the homeless are staying. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Walking to work meant avoiding stepping in human feces. While other residents engaged in what she calls “joke apps” that mapped where poop was spotted, Pang sought pre-emptive measures. She had already used her savings to study coding, and was one of the few women programmers at Instacart, so she decided to turn her skills toward technology that might help address homelessness.

“It made me very sad as someone who was born and raised there,” she said.

Pang and Cadengo, from Loma Linda, brainstormed what became Outreach Grid. They began building it in 2016, working alongside police officers who were doing homeless outreach in the city of West Sacramento.

Tiffany Pang, left, CEO of Outreach Grid and co-founder, John Cadengo, right, chief technology officer, work in their Irvine office on Wednesday, December 2, 2020. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Their challenge was to integrate data that was already collected about homeless people but stored in different media — paper forms, Google maps and documents, Excel spreadsheets.

“The systems don’t talk to each other,” Pang said.

“That creates time delays for people getting services.”

Outreach Grid bridges the communication gaps.

The platform can be shared by participating police agencies, street outreach workers, homeless services providers, shelter operators and community organizations. The account connected to the North Orange County Public Safety Task Force has 99 users, Kang said.

Other local police departments — Westminster, Garden Grove and Huntington Beach — began using Outreach Grid this year. In the Inland Empire, the city of Riverside employs the technology as part of its homeless outreach, as does a growing list of communities around the country. The app also is being used in a dozen big cities, including San Antonio and Baltimore.

“It’s a really good communication tool,” said Hafsa Kaka, officer of homeless solutions for Riverside. “If I were to look up a person, I can see where that person last was.”

Outreach Grid also shows users what type of services a homeless person has been offered, accepted or declined. Quick access to those details means it’s not necessary to ask an individual to repeat — or remember — potentially critical information.

Outreach Grid can collect and disseminate even minute details, such as distribution of hygiene kits, bottles of water, bus passes. In addition to the reservation tool for beds at homeless shelter, there’s another that helps people connect to potentially permanent housing, by listing apartment owners who accept subsidized vouchers along with advertising housing events for tenants.

Pang said a routine task — finding an open bed at the Buena Park Navigation Center and relaying its availability to a task force officer — has been reduced from 45 minutes to less than 10 minutes.

The app, she added, is more equitable too.

“You no longer have to rely on the enthusiasm of the case manager or the outreach worker.”


Source: Orange County Register

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