Working with the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative

I just spent three weeks in Denver, working with the folks at the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative. Since homelessness has been a prominent topic recently, I thought I’d share a bit about the trip. I was there as part of a Tableau Foundation “mission project”, in which the Foundation sponsors a few Tableau employees to spend time helping a nonprofit with a data project. For this project, we joined up with Community Solutions, a national nonprofit working to end homelessness, and the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative, an organization that coordinates homeless services across the Denver metro area. We were there to share our skills in data analysis, but also learned a lot about homelessness, and about the people making it their purpose to help some of our communities’ most vulnerable members.

One of my biggest takeaways was that although homelessness is an old problem, our understanding of homelessness, and the ways we approach trying to solve it, are still evolving. This was especially visible at the Built For Zero conference, hosted by Community Solutions, which we attended as part of our first week in Denver. There, communities from all over the country got together to share knowledge and encouragement, and there were a lot of people taking in new ideas to take back to their own community. Also, I saw a push to leverage data to better understand the problem and to be more effective. Needless to say, there’s a lot of innovation still happening in the fight against homelessness.

In our first week, we joined the MDHI folks at the Built for Zero conference, which brings together homeless services organizations across the country around the goal of ending homelessness.

While homelessness is not a new problem, it has become more pressing recently, as many cities have seen an increase in housing costs and noticeably more people on the street without a home. The increasing homeless population has been met with a combination of compassion and antagonism. In San Francisco, close to where I live, residents recently voted for a tax on wealthy corporations to raise money for addressing homelessness in the city, even as many residents have grown less tolerant of the homeless in their neighborhoods.

Homelessness is a challenging problem because the causes of homelessness are diverse and not as well understood as many think. People gravitate towards simple explanations, but those explanations only tell part of the story. I’ve heard some people blame the increase in homelessness on other cities busing them in. While busing does happen, most homeless people became homeless in the same region that they currently live in. Drugs and mental illness are often cited as the reason for homelessness, and it is true that these are common problems among the homeless, but that doesn’t tell the whole story, either. For many, homelessness happened after a loss of a job, a crippling medical bill, or a rent hike left them unable to afford their rent. The reality is that the homeless have diverse needs, and no single solution will solve the housing problem for everyone.

From my experience working with the folks at MDHI, I’ve seen that there are a lot of great things happening in the fight against homelessness. Homelessness is a growing problem, yes, but we’re getting better at understanding it, and there are a lot of smart and dedicated people applying themselves to the problem. In Denver, our mission project helped build some data infrastructure and some dashboards, but that’s just one piece of a larger story of Denver’s homeless services becoming more data-driven, and more effective.

Matt showing us his visualization of inflow and outflow for housing programs

In other fun news about this trip, I have a lot of family in the Denver area, so I got to see aunts, uncles, and grandparents who I hadn’t seen in a while. On the weekends we went hiking in Red Rocks Park, ate at Italian buffets, and played retro arcade games. It was a definite added bonus for coming to Denver!

Also, I’m not usually one to dress up for Halloween, but the folks at MDHI encouraged us to do so, and I could not allow myself to leave them disappointed. There was even a pirate-themed rubber ducky in the office that I could use as my pirate shoulder-bird.