Meagan Zielinski of Wilmington
Meagan Zielinski demonstrates the modified application she developed to improve the federally mandated process of conducting an annual count of homeless individuals in New Hanover County. Baxter Miller / Carolina Public Press

A Wilmington woman who manages the area’s homeless response system was able to modify technology this year to make conducting a federally mandated count of homeless persons dramatically easier and more accurate.

Each January, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development requires any community receiving federal funding from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grant to conduct a count of the homeless population in the area.

While the count has traditionally been done using a paper-and-pencil survey method, this year HUD released information on a program called ArcGIS that it recommended using for gathering data for the count.

Maegan Zielinski, director of the Wilmington-based Cape Fear Region Homeless Continuum of Care, modified this technology to conduct the Point-in-Time count for her region this year.

“I wanted to propel the community in a direction of utilizing technology and get them to see the benefits of using technology to advance our mission of ending and preventing homelessness,” Zielinski told Carolina Public Press.

“As a community, we are working toward utilizing our Homeless Management Information System, and this was a good steppingstone for getting comfortable using and training on brand new technology.”

For counties where the local government already has a license to the same software, the innovation could greatly improve the process going forward.

Modifying the app

The ArcGIS app, owned by the California-based software company Esri, was created as a mapping and survey tool. The app’s GPS function allows for data collected by the user to be mapped based on where the data is gathered.

Zielinski said she used this feature to pinpoint where the highest concentrations of the homeless population are in the Cape Fear area. Although the federal government recommended using the app to conduct the counts, Zielinski found that it took substantial modifications to make this practical.

In order to use the app for the Point-in-Time count, Zielinski spent 12 hours recoding the app’s default questions to fit her purpose. Although part of the process was trial and error, Esri provided several training videos and manuals to help speed up the process, Zielinski said.

“It changed the way we conducted (the Point-in-Time count) this year because everyone had the app installed on their phones and it makes it easier to carry around rather than paper, pencil and clipboards,” she said.

“Surveyors were able to focus on asking the questions and getting clear stories from individuals rather than fumbling around with materials.”

Zielinski said this updated method made for a more efficient data entry that allowed for duplicate entries to be erased, providing a more accurate assessment of the homeless population.

Meagan Zielinski of Wilmington
Maegan Zielinski looks on as her cellphone runs the modified app. Baxter Miller / Carolina Public Press

Updating methodology comes with problems

While Zielinski found ArcGIS to be useful in conducting the Point-in-Time count, she said costs would prevent its use in all counties. She was able to obtain a free license to use the app because her local government was already using it.

Zielinski said if she had not had the option for a free license, she would not have been able to afford it. With a license costing more than $10,000, it is well outside the budget of most Continuums of Care.

Amy Sawyer, project specialist for the N.C. Coalition to End Homelessness, said while several areas are interested in using an app, the cost made it impossible for many.

“It can sometimes be priced higher than what nonprofit budgets can handle,” Sawyer said.

“This is not insurmountable, but something that not everyone thinks of immediately if they aren’t used to the budget constraints of working in the nonprofit field.”

Another problem Sawyer sees with using an app is the technological literacy required of volunteers. She said even taking the data out of the app requires not only an understanding of technology but also a willingness to embrace a learning curve.

The learning curve and training involved also concerned Zielinski, particularly because her community was greatly affected by Hurricane Florence.

HUD recommends starting training in October, but Zielinski was not able to begin until December.

She said she appreciates the user friendly nature of the app and expects ongoing training to be a refresher rather than an entirely new course every year. Zielinski said she trained people ranging in ages from the early 20s to 70s to use the app with little issue.

Laura Bullock, a member of Wilmington-based ministry Vigilant Hope, was one of those people. Each year her ministry volunteers to help conduct the Point-in-Time count.

“I appreciated using the app,” Bullock said. “It was very user-friendly, even for a not-so-tech-savvy person like me and it made submitting our data much cleaner and easier.”

For Sawyer, the updated data collection consistency is a big plus when it comes to using new technologies to conduct the annual counts.

“The consistency, efficiency and effectiveness of data management through an app is really exciting, and many volunteers we recruited are familiar with the concept of an app, so the time feels right to move from paper surveys to app-based surveys,” Sawyer said.

“If we can get better data faster, the hope is that we can make and sustain connections with people experiencing homelessness.”

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