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Leveraging Real-Time Data to Optimize Shelter Space Management


Overnight shelters serve as more than just a quick fix for people experiencing homelessness. They're a crucial part of a community's social safety net, offering security and support to anyone grappling with the challenges of unhoused living. 

These shelters represent a community’s shared dedication to looking out for each other and a pledge to protect its most vulnerable residents.

Unfortunately, a lack of functional systems makes it difficult for providers to anticipate and address the needs of a growing homeless population, especially when it comes to forecasting shelter occupancy. The impact of these inaccurate forecasts goes beyond shelter operations, with far-reaching effects on policy-making, city planning, and emergency response strategies. 

The importance of developing an accurate prediction model cannot be overstated: if shelters underestimate occupancy, they may fail to protect vulnerable individuals; if shelters overestimate their capacity, they may squander precious resources. Developing a dependable prediction model is necessary to protect the welfare of those who rely on these shelters to survive. 

By shifting to a model that harnesses real-time data, providers can examine previous shelter occupancy patterns to better predict future demand, ensuring that as many folks as possible have a safe place to stay.

The Impact of Real-Time Data in Shelter Management

To understand how real-time data can revolutionize shelter management, let’s first take a look at the difficulties in the current landscape of care.

Widespread Challenges in Data Collection and Sharing

As it stands, agencies and providers employ different methods and tools for collecting and managing data. As a result, vulnerable people who want to access services or housing often have to enter their information multiple times, eroding their willingness to engage. The process also creates an overload of paperwork, burdening caseworkers and limiting, rather than facilitating, access to resources. 

Care providers have voiced concerns about the strain these tools place on both themselves and their clients in terms of time and energy. Using multiple tools for different tasks—there's one for intake, another for housing, another for health, and yet another for departure and follow-up—often means clients have to answer the same difficult and personal questions repeatedly, which can be triggering.

On top of that, these assessments pose a real challenge when it comes to sharing data. Some require entering the same data into two or three different systems, which isn’t sustainable for service staff and leads to burnout.

Once they’ve navigated the data collection process, it’s difficult for individual shelters to share that data among members of the system. Complicated agreements around data use and privacy concerns often slow down or even halt these connections, making data-sharing systems less effective and potentially costly to maintain. 

Yet, there’s no denying that this data holds immense value for both clients and communities, enabling providers to collaborate more effectively with colleagues, policymakers, lawmakers, and researchers, leading to positive changes. 

Benefits of Real-Time Data Collection in Shelter Management

The first step to enhancing data collection processes is making sure that case managers, outreach workers, and management grasp the significance of data collection.

While governments, nonprofits, and community groups have long used different strategies to tackle the issue of data collection, advances in technology have made real-time data increasingly available to communities. Real-time data provides the most current system information on demand, and it is a powerful tool to enhance the agility of shelter management operations, enabling better decision-making, resource optimization, and overall efficiency. 

Clarity Human Services, Bitfocus’ ultra-user-friendly HMIS, offers an all-in-one tool for addressing your data collection and analysis needs. With real-time shelter space data visualization and reporting capabilities, Clarity gives shelters the insight they need to get people off the streets and into a bed ASAP.

Even if your community doesn’t have Clarity, real-time data is crucial. Here are some key benefits of keeping your data high-quality and up-to-date:

  • Resource Allocation and Capacity Planning: Real-time data allows shelter managers to track a shelter’s current capacity, identify trends, and allocate resources accordingly. This ensures that shelters can adequately meet a client’s immediate needs, optimize available resources, and prevent overcrowding.

  • Emergency Response: During crises or disasters, real-time data is crucial for quick and effective emergency response. Shelter managers can use real-time information to assess the impact of an event, identify areas of high demand, and mobilize resources rapidly to address emerging needs.

  • Communication and Coordination: Data systems integrated with real-time communication tools facilitate better coordination among shelter staff, outreach teams, external organizations, CoCs, and local government entities. This ensures that everyone involved in operations can access the most up-to-date information, fostering a collaborative and responsive environment.

  • Performance Metrics and Continuous Improvement: Real-time data provides a basis for measuring the performance of shelter operations. Analyzing key metrics over time helps shelters identify areas for improvement, streamline processes, and enhance the overall effectiveness of shelter management.


Shelter Bed Reservation Screen

Enhancing Shelter Operations with Real-Time Data

The coordinated entry system (CES) emerged as a response to the severe mismatch between housing supply and demand in many communities across the nation.

Before its implementation, unhoused individuals faced a labyrinthine system of waitlists and social service programs that demanded significant patience, resilience, and often luck to navigate. Homeless service providers found themselves competing for scarce funding and the limited availability of accommodations for their clients.

Now, the processes involved in coordinated entry ensure that people experiencing homelessness have equal access to resources, and can be quickly identified, assessed for, and connected to housing programs. During the assessment process, data collection helps clients receive access to much-needed support and services, no matter where they enter the system.

In the past few years, there has been a trend toward incorporating real-time data in shelter management operations to improve CE processes and decision-making by communities and care providers. 

To produce real-time data, bed availability and occupancy information need to be regularly updated as capacity changes. With shelter staff focused on providing the best possible care to their clients, they don’t have time to focus extensively on data entry.

In response, we designed Clarity Human Services to make case management, outreach and engagement, and coordinated entry a breeze. Our robust, easy-to-use reporting and data analysis features give communities a strong starting point for offering holistic care services and making evidence-based decisions.

Clarity INVENTORY is a bed and unit management tool built into Clarity Human Services that provides real-time information on each bed and unit's availability, status, and capacity. By empowering shelter staff with real-time data, Clarity increases transparency and helps more unhoused individuals find a safe place to stay. 


Effective Tools and Strategies for Shelter Resource Management

Resource allocation and bed management for shelters are based on each community’s needs, shelter availability, and staffing capacity. 

A national best practice is to manage shelter placements through the local coordinated entry system while keeping access to shelters as low-barrier as possible. This creates a collaborative effort across the community to bring their unhoused neighbors inside as quickly as possible. 

Here are a few examples of how shelters are currently leveraging technology:

  • Digital intake forms: By streamlining the intake process, digital forms simplify data collection and storage for shelter staff.
  • Case management software: This software enables shelter staff to more closely monitor client information, such as housing history and medical needs, which allows them to gain a deeper understanding of an individual’s requirements and provide more tailored assistance.
  • Virtual case management: Using video conferencing software, staff can deliver case management services remotely, which increases their capacity to cater to individuals with mobility challenges or other difficulties accessing shelters.

While these implementations of technology have greatly improved services for those experiencing homelessness, they can be made even better with the use of real-time data, helping shelter staff reach more people where they’re at. 

Nonprofit organizations and private companies have already started working with real-time data programs to help address homelessness. (For example, Airbnb's Open Homes initiative has helped house 25,000 people who need temporary housing — though not for homeless populations specifically, their initiative does demonstrate the power of up-to-date housing inventory information.)

For our part, we’ve designed Clarity INVENTORY to best serve local shelters by integrating the management of a community’s coordinated entry system, HMIS, and bed and unit availability all in one place, making Clarity INVENTORY an impactful tool for any community. 

Combining the data and tools for these systems and processes gives providers more visibility over the community they support, enables system-wide coordination, and allows them to monitor performance in ways that weren’t possible before. 

The Power of Data in Action

Though the comprehensiveness of data collection can always be improved, there are actually many sources of data for homeless populations.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gathers annual point-in-time data and housing inventory counts from all CoCs across the United States. Additionally, each CoC contributes to a separate HMIS, while the National Center for Homeless Education keeps a database on homeless youth education. States and localities also collect data. However, this data often remains siloed within jurisdictional boundaries, making it difficult to gain a comprehensive understanding of the landscape.

In other words, the challenge isn’t always gathering data — it’s making sense of a sea of data and applying it effectively. 

The National Alliance to End Homelessness hosts a "State of Homelessness" portal that aggregates and visualizes homelessness data nationwide. This portal not only tallies the number of people experiencing homelessness but also provides insights into sheltered versus unsheltered populations, homelessness by race and ethnicity, bed availability in each state, and trends in permanent housing solutions. 

An open data portal like this can assess the effectiveness of various initiatives and highlight communities making strides in reducing homelessness. Such insights are valuable for reallocating resources to the right geographic areas and demographic groups, both locally and nationally.

Clarity HMIS: A Community Success Story

Bitfocus has collaborated with many communities that are looking to create a more established shelter coordination system. In such cases, clients have historically had the burden of finding shelter by personally contacting or visiting each shelter daily to inquire about available beds. This places a significant burden on clients, particularly those with limited access to transportation or communication resources.

Recently, a community in New England partnered with Bitfocus to revamp their coordinated entry system, integrating shelter placements while introducing Clarity INVENTORY. A primary goal was to ensure that no shelter beds remained unused during the crucial winter months, where securing indoor accommodation could mean the difference between life and death.

Within just a few days of launching their enhanced shelter coordination effort and implementing Clarity INVENTORY, the community achieved remarkable success. They swiftly accommodated clients upon their initial request for shelter. The real-time bed availability feature provided by Clarity INVENTORY empowered their shelters to instantly identify vacant beds. This way, even if a particular facility was at full capacity, staff could promptly locate an available bed elsewhere and facilitate the placement on behalf of the client.

If you’d like to explore how Clarity can empower you and your community, reach out to our team and we’ll be in touch!

Evolving Trends in Shelter Management

In many communities, a large shelter may have its own client or bed management system and may not participate in the community’s HMIS. Even when such standalone shelters do participate, it may be via periodically uploading data from their own system to the HMIS, which needs to be only annual to meet the participation criteria. 

For coordinated entry efforts to be effective, communities must come together. Technology can facilitate this in several ways, such as through a communitywide HMIS, helping providers aggregate the mass amounts of data available to provide the best possible care for people in need.

The availability of real-time data will also play a key role in the future of shelter management. Right now, social scientists are using this data in innovative ways, such as supporting outreach workers to make more productive on-the-go decisions about connecting people with services.

The impact of real-time data goes beyond connecting people with the support they need; it’s proving to be a key component in the fight to prevent homelessness in the first place. For example, real-time data is enabling experimental pilot programs that are leveraging predictive analytics to identify people at risk of chronic homelessness.

Bitfocus’ planned release of new data interoperability tools will provide customers with more robust channels for accessing shelter data from external systems, increasing the frequency of such imports closer to real-time.

Ensure Up-to-Date, High-Quality Data with Clarity HMIS

At Bitfocus, we take data seriously because we know that every data point represents a real person. When accurate, real-time data can have a life-saving impact, it’s absolutely essential for communities to ensure superior data quality.

Clarity enables you to easily import, manage, and analyze this data, saving you precious time and energy and connecting more of your unhoused neighbors with the support and housing they need. 

If you're interested in discovering how Clarity can help you provide great, data-informed care, reach out to us today!

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