How Can We Stop Failing People Experiencing Homelessness? (with blockchain)

A person experiencing homelessness was once asked why they were homeless. Their answer: “If I knew that, I wouldn’t be homeless.” You may think it could never happen to you, but what if it did? What would your friends and family think? How would you survive?

If you became homeless in downtown Calgary, one of the best places you could go would be the Calgary Drop-in & Rehab Centre (The DI). The DI has been serving the city’s most vulnerable since 1961. They rank #12 in Canada’s top 100 charities and were rated “A-” by Charity Intelligence Canada. Their 266 workers help people find housing, food, shelter and provide special support for the traumatized. Educational, volunteer and career opportunities are also available. But the DI has had its challenges.

They installed fingerprint biometrics back in 2008 and discovered self-reported identity data from clients had errors. “One of our clients had 28 different profiles, banned for life under 26 of them,” said Helen Wetherley Knight, Director of IT for the Calgary Drop-in Centre. “He would call himself a different name, wait for shift change and come back in”.

There is the risk that predators could get access to people in need of emergency services. She’s now developing a way to empower the city’s homeless. Facial recognition and blockchain technology will give people control over their personal data. Her first step is to improve I.T. at the DI.

Why Nonprofits Need Better I.T.

You need the smartest people you can find to solve a problem as difficult as homelessness. The Calgary Board of Education chose Knight when she was young for their Gifted and Talented Education program. Now as an adult she’s added an MBA to her certification from Stanford University. Knight is an expert at converting strategy into action through technology.

She regularly volunteered to serve clients lunch at the DI while working for Suncor Energy. When the DI was looking for a new Director of I.T. she was the obvious choice. Her volunteer experience helped her clinch the role. Despite this, Knight believes Nonprofits put too much emphasis on Nonprofit experience. Operational expertise is necessary, too.

“Boards don’t have enough CIOs,” she said. As a result, many are not making the technology investments they need. Government and donors are turning to evidence based donations. A lack of data prevents Nonprofits from getting the grants they need. She won’t let this happen on her watch at the Calgary DI.

Imagine Experiencing Homelessness for a Day

People in need of emergency services are often victims of crime. They may be struggling with addiction or have mental health issues. They’re often on their own and without government aid. People like this rarely have a passport or a driver’s license. “Sometimes they don’t even have shoes,” said Knight. Can you imagine what it would be like if ‘you’ experienced  homelessness for a day?

If you stayed at the DI they’d wake you up at 6 am for breakfast. “Sleep deprivation is very common among people experiencing homelessness” said Knight. You may head to the public library and use a computer until you get kicked off. Then you might visit another support centre for medical services. But you’d have to tell them your personal story about why you’re experiencing homelessness. So, you’d have to repeat the story of the trauma you’ve been through and answer potentially invasive or demoralizing questions.

At the end of your day you’d head back to the DI. and get fingerprinted for access. You’d be exhausted and feel the most vulnerable you’ve ever felt. “You hear people talk about people experiencing homelessness taking advantage of the system. But nobody wants to experience homelessness,” added Knight.

Homelessness Made Worse

While the Drop-in Centre’s mission is to provide services to those in need, some people are there for nefarious reasons. This might include selling drugs, recruiting gang members or finding people for human trafficking. Clients who’ve experienced childhood trauma have diminished resistance. “If someone wanted to run a human trafficking ring they could come into a shelter and find everything they need – It’s the new bus station.”  added Knight.

Without a way to identify each client, shelters have no way of knowing who is in the building at any given time. Homeless people have limited control over their personal data. If you were homeless and struggling with drug addiction, sharing your data might result in your children being taken away from you. Someone in such a situation might not risk reaching out for help.

Support centre staff need better data for their own safety, too. Front line work is a difficult role and staff potentially face incidents of verbal and/or physical abuse, among other experiences. Safety for clients and staff is of the utmost importance. What’s the solution? Knight believes what’s needed is a unique identifier for each homeless person.

The Challenge of Identifying Clients

Identifying people experiencing homelessness is a massive challenge. Knight has been discussing this with I.T. departments from other shelters. They’ve searched the world for the best solutions and learned what doesn’t work.

All types of I.D. cards have failed. One experiment even attempted to tie RFID chips in client’s shoes. The Calgary D.I. decided to install fingerprint biometrics ten years ago. The large of amounts of data they’ve gathered has led to a surprising realization. 30 percent of their clients don’t exist. People have been using false identities.

There’s no telling how inaccurate the data is at other shelters who don’t yet use biometrics. What’s making the problem worse is that data tools differ between emergency care providers. A less confusing identifier that’s shareable could blend data between people who gave the same fake identity. This would give an accurate picture on the services they used.

Digital Identification Done Better

The Calgary Drop-in Centre (The DI) (Image: Calgarydropin.ca)

The two greatest challenges for Knight’s solution are other shelters and funders. Shelters face a catch-22. They need better data, but once they have it they may realize they’re serving fewer clients than they thought. This could reduce their funding. Shelters are already operating on shoestring budgets so this brings added risk.

Increased data accuracy would also impact policies based on inaccurate data. So, Knight must remove any doubt about the accuracy of her data. She’s partnered with a professor from the computer engineering lab at the University of Calgary. He’ll be comparing her data with another shelter. This will prove the accuracy of the biometrics.

While fingerprint technology provides a level of digital identity, facial recognition offers many more advantages. It is more trauma informed, faster and easily integrates into existing security camera systems. Clients identities are saved as a code based on facial measurements, not an identifiable photograph. Further, it works well with blockchain which will give the homeless anonymity and control over their data.

Homelessness Reduced Through Blockchain

The focal point of Knight’s blockchain solution is her facial recognition kiosk. If you were experiencing homelessness without a phone, her kiosk would let you organize your life. A camera would take your picture giving you access and your personal information. But you’d remain anonymous.

“You can use whatever name you want but it’ll know that you are you,” she said. Clients that don’t want their picture taken can still access information about programs, locations and operating hours. None of their services would rely on the kiosk. But the kiosk would offer faster service for those who chose to use it.

Facial recognition has other benefits for the Drop-in Centre. They’ll have evidence of who enters and leaves. This could provide critical information in the event of a fire where everyone evacuates. The agency would know who’s using free services like laundry, taking a shower or eating meals. This would provide new data on which clients are using the auxiliary services but are not sleeping at the DI in the evenings.

Once more homeless serving agencies are on board, each will be able to identify who needs shared services. Clients won’t be re-traumatized every time they tell their story to access services. The system will track and measure the use of services across the community. Shelters can optimize their services to help more people find stable housing sooner.

Next Steps to Reducing Homelessness

Knight started building her business case with a privacy impact assessment. “The proposed solution has proven to be very secure and technically sound” she said. Microsoft Azure Cognitive Services, which enables facial recognition is working very well. It’s good at recognizing people from diverse backgrounds. The hashed algorithm from facial recognition is far better than a fingerprint. “It’s actually more secure than using government ID or self identified birth dates. If the data were hacked it would only release a series of indecipherable measurements,” she added.

No one has attempted to damage her first kiosk, so she’s setting up another. Both will use optional facial recognition technology managed in the cloud. Shelters will only need to paste each client’s unique identifier into their data to get started.

Once the DI has installed facial recognition it could still take years to integrate the system. The sooner it gets launched the better. The homeless services sector will be able to help people experiencing homelessness better. And clients will have more control over their data. In the meantime, Knight has three tips for I.T. leaders and Nonprofits.

Advice for I.T. Leaders and Nonprofits

Knight believes I.T. leaders should volunteer for a Nonprofit. “They need your vision and support,” she urged. If your I.T. department adopts a Nonprofit it will add meaning to their work. Further, there needs to be more CIOs on Nonprofit executive boards. “Not only is it good for your career to have high-end board experience, it’s satisfying,” she added.

Knight advises Nonprofits to stop chasing quick solutions to complex problems. You must have the discipline to stand back and understand the entire problem. “I have seen many attempts to solve complex challenges by downloading free tools or bringing in solutions to only one problem,” she explained. When she first came to the D.I. she measured the cost of frontline staff using free software. She proved staff spent more than 100,000 hours a year entering the same data many times into different systems.

Finally, she said Nonprofits shouldn’t look for quick and easy solutions. They should partner with a skilled I.T. leader and build a solid roadmap. Then they can embark on a coordinated mission for a better return-on-investment. “You’ll be building a foundation to move forward on,” she added.

Better Data for Less Homelessness

Technology is the future for reducing homelessness. Knight believes her solution will not only help more homeless people but save money too. “We’d be identifying new gaps and finding solutions in a new way. It will open up a whole new opportunity for helping people experiencing homelessness.”

Agencies will finally be able to access the data their clients need them to know. Clients will have access to timely information about available services. They’ll be better equipped to drive themselves toward wellness. The government will have better information for approving grants.

If you became homeless it would still be an awful experience. But you’d be better equipped to get back on your feet sooner at the Calgary DI. Better data would show when you’re on the right path and help keep you there. Let’s hope you never become homeless. But in the meantime, let’s help those who already are.

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RELATED: This article appeared in the Blockchain Insider Weekly Newsletter (Apr 9th)