Building a Map to Help Care for Vulnerable Residents

The county sheriff's office uses an online reporter survey to track homeless activity in the area.

The county sheriff's office uses an online reporter survey to track homeless activity in the area. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

San Bernardino County, California, uses a survey and mapping tool to connect homeless people with support services.

In February, following months of drought, 18 inches of rain fell on San Bernardino County, California, flooding dry riverbeds and prompting officials to open a nearby dam to facilitate waterflow. Before the floodgates opened, officials alerted members of the sheriff’s homeless outreach team to their plan. If there were homeless people residing in the floodplain, they thought, they’d need a heads up.

“They told us a couple of hours ahead of time,” said Deputy Mike Jones, one of four members of the Homeless Outreach and Proactive Enforcement, or HOPE, team. But that was enough time for the sheriff's office to respond, tapping into maps that document where homeless people are staying.

“We were able to work with our flood-control district to use the mapping of locations that we have to locate people living there and let them know," he said.

The HOPE team, which uses a community-policing model to connect homeless residents with support services, has been around for five years, but sharing data between county agencies is a much newer initiative. When the team first began collecting information on the county’s homeless population in 2014, deputies kept records on paper, then manually entered the data into spreadsheets later at the office. To find information on specific people, county agencies had to cross-reference the spreadsheets, which weren’t shared between departments—meaning officials were frequently working with incomplete information.

To tackle the problem, the HOPE team created a Homeless Activity Reporter survey to allow citizens and county officials to report where homeless people are living. The survey, accessible online or via the Esri Survey123 ArcGIS app, allows users to pinpoint homeless encampments or individuals on a map, with the option to include written details. The goal is connecting county agencies to help ensure that the area’s most vulnerable residents receive the care and support they need.

“We’re really trying to give a way for our public works and county code enforcement people—who are dealing with homelessness on a daily basis—to communicate with us,” Jones said. “That way we can follow up to offer services to engage these folks.”

For example, code enforcement officials may need members of a homeless encampment to move from a certain area to complete a project. Alerting the sheriff’s office allows the HOPE team to take care of it, freeing up deputies and law enforcement officials for other service calls while making sure that the homeless are safe and accounted for.

“We’re only there for services,” Jones said. “We’re not arresting those folks, but building that relationship with them. When they do get moved along, we try to engage them so we know where they’ll be moving, so that we can keep that relationship with them.”

The mapping tool and survey, along with an in-house dashboard that keeps track of the information, have been in use for about six months. Usage rates vary—some weeks, county agencies access the survey just a handful of times; other weeks, there are 10 to 15 entries. The county also used the tool during its homeless “point-in-time” population count, sending volunteers to areas that had previously been pinpointed on the map in hopes of compiling a more accurate picture of the community. (Inland Empire and Orange County have used a similar technology for these annual counts.)

“Now we know better what is needed based on that count information,” Jones said. “Those outcomes will start showing in the future because it is such a new technology, but I really feel that this is kind of the future of homelessness.”

Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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