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Homelessness is a widespread and deeply rooted problem in Australia. On any given night, over 116,000 Australians do not have a place to call home.
The people sleeping rough on our streets are only the tip of the iceberg. In fact, only seven per cent of people experiencing homelessness sleep rough, with the remainder sleeping in overcrowded rooming houses, couches, cars, or other temporary accommodation.
Breaking the cycle of disadvantage and solving homelessness will require us to think differently about the problem. We need to look beyond the immediate issue and consider the complex causes of homelessness, including family violence, mental health issues, financial distress and the lack of affordable housing.
We need to think about homelessness in the broader community context and acknowledge that addressing the issue will require investments in education, health and housing. We also need to rethink the service system – putting the person in need at the centre and designing services so they are easier to navigate, take a more holistic approach to people’s needs and focus more on early intervention and prevention.
Technology and data can enable these much-needed reforms. Just as digital disruption has taken hold in the consumer and commercial sector, technology can be leveraged as a force for social good. We should also not assume that governments and the not-for-profit sector can solve these problems alone. We can leverage the skills and experience of the private sector in technology and data and collaborate across sectors to drive further progress.
The following case studies highlight some examples where cross-sector collaboration, digital disruption and innovation improved outcomes for people experiencing homelessness. We hope they can encourage a different way of thinking about how to tackle disadvantage and the use of technology to enable positive social change.
Navigating the service system across Australia
We know that navigating the social services support system in Australia can be incredibly difficult and frustrating for people in need.
For someone experiencing or at risk of homelessness, not knowing which services are available, where they are or how they can help just adds to what is already an extremely stressful situation. That’s why Infoxchange, in partnership with Google, realestate.com.au and News Corp Australia, created Ask Izzy – a mobile website to help people quickly and easily find the help they need.
Eighty per cent of people of experiencing homelessness have a smartphone. While they are often using pre-paid phones with no credit, it is a critical lifeline and many will access free wifi services to stay online. Ask Izzy connects these users to over 360,000 services nationally to find housing, food, money help, counselling, legal advice, health services and more.
From the outset, Ask Izzy was designed and developed with people with lived experienced of homelessness and service providers working in the sector. It was clear that in order to empower Ask Izzy’s users we would need to take the time to fully understand their needs. What kind of services would they search for? What categories would they like to see? What sort of language should be used? How should the site look and feel?
As a result of this careful design process, Ask Izzy has seen enormous usage since it was launched nearly four years ago – in the past year alone, there have been more than 1.5 million searches for help on the site. While it’s sad to see that so many people need this help, the tool is clearly responding to the needs of the community.
It is also a great example of cross-sector collaboration. In addition to the founding partners, over 20 organisations have contributed directly to the development of Ask Izzy, including the Victorian Government, Telstra, National Australia Bank, Vodafone and the University of Melbourne.
Taking a more holistic approach to housing needs in Tasmania
Housing Connect is a Tasmanian Government initiative to provide a one-stop shop for all housing and support needs for people in need across the state. A single assessment is used for everything from emergency accommodation to finding a long-term home.
Service providers use the Specialist Homelessness Information Platform (SHIP), a client and case management system developed by Infoxchange in partnership with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, which supports more than 1500 homelessness services across Australia.
The platform gives services an easy way to record and manage client data, enables service coordination, and ensures clients experiencing homelessness can be provided with support in a timely manner. Housing Tasmania further customised the platform to implement a common assessment tool, enable sharing of client data amongst service providers and integrate with core housing systems.
The integration of SHIP with Tasmania’s housing register has resulted in a dramatic difference in understanding client pathways – from seeking assistance to being housed – across all housing and homelessness services in Tasmania. This visibility enables Housing Tasmania to focus on reporting client outcomes rather than simply counting service activity.
Most important of all, it means that people in need of housing receive a better level of service because everyone is working together to improve their housing outcomes.
Using data to improve services for people most in need
Data can be an incredibly powerful tool for better understanding the causes and effective responses to homelessness.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare has recently launched a Housing Data Dashboard, which brings together 20 key national datasets to provide insights on housing and homelessness. The interactive displays allow users to dig deeper into the data contained in the dashboards and export or share information.
The Ask Izzy Open Data Platform, developed by Infoxchange in partnership with Google, provides users with data on what services are being searched for and where through the Ask Izzy website. This means that for the first time in Australia, service providers and policymakers are now able to see where people most need help. With this information, they can better tailor support to people in need based on where the service demand is coming from.
Ultimately, we need to move towards a more real-time and predictive view of service demand to improve outcomes for people in need. This will enable us to better respond to the complex issues associated with homelessness and help break the cycle of disadvantage.