Homeless Link at Dreamforce: a tale of two cities

Profile picture for user pwainewright By Phil Wainewright October 15, 2014
Homeless Link built an app on Salesforce to help housing charities in their work so that homeless people don't have to sleep rough on the street

Homeless man on the street
Dreamforce attendees who walked back from Tuesday's Bruno Mars concert at the Civic Center to their conference hotels will not have been able to ignore the ever-present sight of San Francisco's homeless sleeping on the streets. The contrast with London is especially poignant for Matt Harrison, director of business and social enterprise at Homeless Link, a UK not-for-profit serving charities that help the homeless in cities across Britain. He told me yesterday:

By some measures the problem in San Francisco is a hundred times worse than in London. San Francisco's population is a tenth of London's, but it has ten times as many people sleeping rough.

It's ironic then that software provided by San Francisco-based salesforce.com is helping Homeless Link keep people from sleeping rough on the streets of London. The association has built an application on the Salesforce Platform called In-Form, designed to help its 500 members provide more joined-up help to homeless clients.

In-Form also helps the organization collect data to help identify and prevent some of the root causes of homelessness, and there's a free mobile app that members of the public can use to get rapid help to street sleepers. Salesforce Foundation, the vendor's philanthropic arm, licenses the platform to Homeless Link at a deep discount, which makes the solution affordable to its member charities.

Crowdsourcing public concern

Action on London's rough sleepers dates back to 1993, when then housing minister Sir George Young sought to draw attention to the problem with an ill-judged joke that "the homeless are what you step over when you come out of the opera." (London's Royal Opera House is in Covent Garden, an area favored by street sleepers). Harrison told me:

We've done a lot of work to reduce homelessness in London over the past twenty years — all based around the idea it is unacceptable to have someone sleeping rough on the streets. We need to find them as soon as possible and make sure they never have to sleep another night on the street.

London Mayor Boris Johnson even went as far as a commitment to end all street sleeping in London by 2012. Unfortunately the recession and government changes to social security rules — combined with better reporting — instead led to an increase after the figures reached a low in 2010.

Research has shown that at least half of those sleeping rough for the first time have not sought help before doing so. The StreetLink service, which is available as a mobile app, allows anyone to help a street sleeper on the spot.

StreetLink enables any member of the public to tell us about someone sleeping rough. It's crowdsourcing that concern of the public.

Local authorities in England have a statutory duty to provide housing to homeless families, but not the single homeless. Therefore they work with charities and other voluntary sector providers to help find accommodation for rough sleepers. StreetLink reports the case to the local authority, gives information about what local services are available, and a week later will call the member of the public back with news about what the outcome was.

We need intelligence. We get about 1,000 reports a month and get a positive outcome in 40 percent of cases. Since the service launched in December 2012, over 1,000 homeless single people have been put in accommodation.

Collecting data

Homeless Link analyzes the data collected in its In-Form application to build a base of evidence about homelessness that can be shared with other organizations. For example, when the current government brought in changes to social security rules that saw benefits withdrawn if claimants missed appointments at their local job center, Homeless Link found these sanctions were hitting the homeless especially hard.

Sanctioning had a big effect on us. We found it was disproportionately affecting homeless people — they were ten times more likely to be affected. We collected that data, worked with the Department of Works and Pensions, and achieved in the summer a change in the legislation to allow job center staff to omit homeless people from the obligation to attend appointments for a few weeks. It was an acknowledgement that newly homeless people need some time to sort things out.

Sixty-five housing charities currently use the In-Form application to access and update their records on homeless people. Each pays a modest subscription for their own custom configuration of the application. A further 150 smaller charities will soon be able to access a free version delivered using Salesforce Communities.

The application allows them to record interactions, interventions and outcomes. They get a 360 degree view of the homeless person. It stops homeless people from having to endlessly retell their stories.

As well as streamlining the handling of casework, the application also helps charities demonstrate the value of their work by producing metrics to illustrate outcomes achieved — a crucial tool in fundraising.

The Salesforce1 platform makes the application easy to learn and use by charity workers and volunteers, said Harrison.

They don't want to come to work and see something that's a clunky old database. They want something that they want to use.

The fact that the upgrades are seamless is pretty impressive. It's really important that these systems do stay relevant.

Disclosure: Salesforce.com is a diginomica premier partner and paid the author's travel expenses to attend Dreamforce.

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