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San Francisco’s ‘homeless tracker’ has been damaged for years

The City’s database for homeless services has been unable to track available housing units for years, despite urgent calls to fix the problem, resulting in vacant units and longer wait times for people on the street, auditors and homeless agencies say.

The ONE System, which the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (HSH) calls “the system of record for all department services,” has never been able to inventory available housing units. Homeless agencies say they pointed out that issue before the system was implemented, and an audit documented the problem in 2020.

That frustrates managers of housing for the homeless.

“It seems like an easy fix,” said Lauren Hall, the director and co-founder of Delivering Innovation in Supportive Housing, a housing provider to the homeless. “Given the amount of resources at HSH, I’m baffled by it. This has created a significant barrier. I just want to drive a bus to the shelter and pick up people to put in our empty units.”

HSH says it is working to fix the problem, and Hall and others give the department credit for transparency and diligence tacking monumental challenges. But the inability to address a lingering problem with long-term consequences must be overcome, experts say.

In the struggle to help San Francisco’s 8,000 homeless people, fixing a database is just one of many issues, experts say. But it is also low-hanging fruit in an orchard of seemingly unreachable challenges. And unlike with many other issues The City must address, there is plenty of funding. The HSH budget for the next two years draws from $1.2 billion in federal, state and local funds. Yet the lingering problem has contributed to hundreds of homes being vacant, experts say.

Hall’s nonprofit, known by its acronym, DISH, and others pointed out the issue years ago, she says. “A bunch of us told them in the beginning that the system wouldn’t track vacancies. But I guess they had a vision.”

The ONE System (the acronym stands for online navigation and entry) is the technical framework for The City’s “coordinated entry” strategy to streamline homeless services. Homeless agencies across The City enter data about homeless people into the ONE System — including location, contact information and history of city services — which calculates a score used to allocate services and housing.

The ONE System was unveiled with great fanfare in 2018, when Mayor London Breed told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I’m really excited about this.”

“This new system is important because it gives us an understanding of the big picture,” Breed added.

In a 68-page, full-color, five-year plan in October 2017, the department said, “The ONE System will be fully implemented by mid-2018.”

“We can reduce all chronic homelessness 50% by December 2022,” the plan said.

But the system was not finished in 2018, or any time since then, and homeless rates have gone up. In 2017, The City reported 6,858 homeless people. The latest count, from 2019, shows 8,035.

And the ONE System’s “big picture” that Breed cited has never shown perhaps the most important aspect of addressing homelessness: Available housing units. In fact, the system can cause The City to lose sight of them.

“The clearest evidence of the system’s inadequacies occurred in December 2019, when the department realized that an estimated 250 units were available and ready for occupancy, but with no referred clients,” a performance audit compiled for the Board of Supervisors in August 2020 found. The audit found that one-third of the housing units that should be included in the inventory did not show up in the system.

Severin Campbell, one author of the audit by the San Francisco firm Harvey M. Rose Associates, told The Examiner the issue led to “vacant units and longer wait times to place eligible clients in housing.” Campbell’s team cited “the urgent need to expand the ONE System to incorporate all relevant housing information. The department should prioritize the development of this functionality.”

But two-and-a-half years later, HSH and homeless agencies say the issue has still not been fixed.

The department says it is “continuing work to expand the functionality of the ONE System,” citing work with ONE System’s maker, a Las Vegas company called Bitfocus, “to facilitate housing placements and track housing inventory.”

Meanwhile, the computer system that The City calls “the single point of truth for information about San Francisco’s homeless housing portfolio” still does not show all the available housing units. The City’s data on housing vacancies cobbles together ONE System data with reports from housing providers that is not online.

HSH data shows there were 852 vacant housing units for the homeless in January. Nearly a third of them, 293, were not in the ONE System. That means homeless agencies could not connect homeless people with those units online, despite spending time working on the ONE System with homeless people to enter other data.

“What it doesn’t do is link to the available housing units,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, executive director of the Coalition on Homelessness, a group that has analyzed The City’s homeless services since 1987. A February report from the coalition cited city records that show “not all housing is represented in ONE.”

Homeless people can also be knocked out of the system if they do not sign in regularly, or can be sent to the end of the line for housing if The City updates records, experts say, an issue reported by ProPublica in February. “The city’s software to track vacant units is error prone,” ProPublica wrote, and “information on people trying to get indoors still isn’t recorded accurately.”

At a Coalition on Homelessness press conference on March 2, Tina Collins, a case worker for the nonprofit Code Tenderloin said she signed up for services in the ONE System and, “When I went back nine months later, I wasn’t even in the system.”

The ONE System is what the federal government classifies as a Homeless Management Information System, and HMIS systems are required of cities by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Some homeless agencies told The Examiner the system is relatively manageable, despite the vacancies issue. Bitfocus is a leader in the growing tech sector of homelessness data management, serving other major cities including Los Angeles, San Jose and San Diego. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

And HSH is building believers among many homelessness agencies. The audit that cited the ONE System’s inability to manage housing vacancies highly praised the HSH staff, writing, “Even with limited staffing and unprecedented external challenges, its staff is among the most dedicated — as noted by many in leadership at the COVID-19 Command Center (CCC) — and its strategies and goals focused on making a sustained reduction in homelessness.”

Hall, the housing provider frustrated by the ongoing ONE System issue, says “I’m very confident in the current HSH leadership” and Executive Director Shireen McSpadden.

But the auditors noted HSH has failed to spend all of its budget, effectively manage its programs or hire much-needed staff.

“The department has consistently carried vacant positions year to year,” the August 2020 audit found. “The department must prioritize hiring immediately.” But HSH only recently hired a ONE System lead to oversee a team of “analysts to manage all aspects of the ONE System projects.” Two other roles that work with ONE System and a head of information technology role remain open.

HSH says it has spent $8.5 million on the ONE System, but city records show $11.3 million in HSH contracts have been issued to Bitfocus. HSH did not immediately comment on the differing figures. The City says it has expanded its contract with Bitfocus.

McSpadden, the head of HSH, told The Examiner in a statement, “The ONE System is still a work in progress, with ongoing projects to add functionality, improve data quality and consolidate additional databases. We are moving steadily closer to our ONE System vision.”

Ongoing work with Bitfocus “will mark the first time The City has a comprehensive picture of its entire homelessness housing system,” the department says. “We anticipate this project to be completed in 2022.”

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