Chair Jessica Vega Pederson on Jan. 31 announced a new data task force that will help ensure the Joint Office of Homeless Services is collecting and sharing outcomes that track how well its programming addresses homelessness in Portland and Multnomah County.
Vega Pederson unveiled her plan before a Board of Commissioners briefing where the Joint Office presented on its ongoing data improvement work, including its launch of Built for Zero, and how its metrics reflect the department’s impact on health, safety and other quality of life measures for people experiencing homelessness.
“We know we have a humanitarian crisis on our streets right now, and that really demands us to act and communicate with more transparency, accountability and urgency,” Vega Pederson said. “We know that we will not succeed in moving people off the streets and into housing without data-driven decision-making that helps us track our progress and hold ourselves accountable. We know that transparency begins with good data.”
The briefing and the creation of the task force stemmed from a Fiscal Year 2023 budget note sponsored by Commissioner Sharon Meieran.
The task force will convene for about 45 days and include representatives from the County and the City of Portland, including Vega Pederson and Meieran. The task force will help review and potentially develop new performance indicators for the Joint Office that will be presented in an easy-to-use data dashboard in a major redesign of the Joint Office’s website, expected to go live as soon as April 2023.
The Joint Office currently tracks and publicly reports several metrics, including housing placements, shelter use, shelter capacity, homelessness prevention, and returns to homelessness. Interactive reports detailing those metrics are posted quarterly and annually on Tableau, with demographic breakdowns included. The Joint Office also posts quarterly and annual reports that detail outcomes achieved through the Supportive Housing Services Measure.
“Having that accountability and transparency, including a baseline of where we are at so we can assess how our programs are doing and get to a desired outcome, is essential. And sharing that with the community in a way that’s understandable and digestible is essential,” Meieran said.
Intersection of Housing and Health
The briefing was centered on a presentation by Joint Office leadership showing the department’s existing work to track health and safety metrics, along with opportunities for improvement.
The Joint Office highlighted the clear intersection between homelessness, health and safety, citing data showing that people experiencing homelessness live with higher rates of physical health conditions, mental health conditions and substance use disorders, and are more likely to be victims of violence than the general population.
Presenters said that the Joint Office believes that its housing-first model is the best framework to address these health and safety concerns for people who are homeless.
Housing first is an evidence-based approach to homelessness that works to put people in housing as soon as possible, wrapping them with services as needed, instead of making someone wait on the streets or in a camp or shelter first.
In the 15 months between July 2021 and Sept. 30, 2022, Joint Office-funded providers helped nearly 5,500 people leave homelessness for homes of their own.
“All Joint Office of Homeless Services programs affect health and safety. To us, housing is health,” said Joshua Bates, interim director for the Joint Office.
Because the Joint Office’s main purpose is to rehouse people as quickly as possible, presenters said they prioritize tracking data related to housing outcomes for people served by their programs.
“Housing and homeless services have a demonstrated direct and indirect impact on health and safety. And what we measure is access to these services and their ability to get and keep people housed,” said Anna Pendas, adult system program manager for the Joint Office.
Along with 5,450 people placed into housing, between July 2021 and September 2022, Joint Office programs served 8,730 people in shelter, and helped 50,920 people avoid homelessness through prevention services like rent assistance.
The presenters also highlighted metrics for specific Joint Office-funded programs and services that directly affect health and safety, including street outreach, street-based medicine, hygiene services, community cleanup programs and severe weather response.
Built for Zero and other data improvements in the works
Additionally, presenters provided an update on Joint Office’s steady, thoughtful implementation of Built for Zero, a national model for ending homelessness that relies on data to accomplish its goals. Multnomah County is one of the largest regions to partner with Built for Zero, and one of the first to apply the system to something as complicated as addressing chronic homelessness.
The Joint Office is forming advisory groups that will guide its outreach coordination, ability to help people navigate barriers to services, and ability to match people to services based on need, all of which will support the Joint Office’s Built for Zero goals.
Presenters also explained several major improvements to Joint Office data systems set for 2023. One is a new data quality plan that will take effect March 2023.
“We’re working with community partners to amend and create a more robust plan,” said Lori Kelley, planning and evaluation manager for the Joint Office. “We’ll be monitoring the data over time and getting better data at the ground level.”
In another change due this spring, Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties’ individual Homeless Management Information Systems will merge into a regional system. A Homeless Management Information System, or HMIS, is a federally required by-name database that tracks housing and other services for people experiencing homelessness. The creation of a fully functional, tri-county database is in line with the regional approach of the Supportive Housing Services measure.
Presenters also highlighted the ongoing work to modernize and expand the infrastructure behind the Joint Office’s data systems. The Joint Office has increased its capacity for program monitoring and quality improvement by adding staff its Data Team, and through a partnership with the County’s Department of County Assets.
The presenters pointed out that some barriers to collecting comprehensive data will remain, and that all data collection should be done with the intention of program improvement.
“Privacy considerations create barriers. Homeless service providers are often not health care or safety experts, and are often not well positioned to collect health information,” Kelley said. “As stewards of public dollars, investments in tracking outcomes should be always done with this eye toward program improvement.”
Commissioners Ask for More Effective Data and Greater Transparency
Commissioners welcomed Chair Vega Pederson’s data task force, and underlined the need for indicators that build on what the Joint Office already tracks and truly assess the department’s impact.
Meieran said she’s looking forward to participating in the task force, and wants to ensure the Joint Office tracks not just discrete outcome numbers as it currently does, but adds data that speaks to how effectively its programs accomplish the big-picture goal of reducing homelessness.
“It sometimes feels like I hear people talk about data like it’s the enemy, like it's the ‘D-word’ or something. Data is neither a friend nor an enemy,” Meieran said. “It just is. It is objective information that can tell us how we're doing.”
Commissioner Susheela Jayapal noted that an improved by-name list of people experiencing chronic homelessness, one of the goals outlined in Built for Zero, could be critical for figuring out where people are experiencing barriers and then working with them to help them overcome those barriers.
Jayapal highlighted a pilot program in Washington state’s King County that uses a by-name list and real-time data for a subset of the region’s homeless population, in a specific geographic area, to help them move from tents into housing.
“They have the ability to daily track by name the people who are being outreached to on the street, and then the progress that's being made to get them into housing,” Jayapal said about the King County program, which was recently visited by Multnomah County and Portland officials. “That's what we need to get to.”
Both Commissioners Lori Stegmann and Diane Rosenbaum asked how the providers contracted with the Joint Office would react to increased demand for data, particularly around street outreach, which often relies on trust-building and personal gestures that can be hard to translate into reports.
Presenters said that community-based organizations that contract with the Joint Office contracts will help inform any updates to data collection, and changes will be done with the goal of making work easier for providers.
“We want this tool to be useful to the people who are using it: outreach workers who are connecting people to housing resources,” Kelley said.
Vega Pederson ended the briefing by echoing the importance of setting up providers for success, and said she was eager for the work ahead.
“It's pretty exciting all of the things that are in process, as well as the work that's happening regionally, to really grow this system in a way that's addressing the need and the urgency and the scale of the crisis we're facing,” she said.