By Jessie Woldstad
The ongoing plight of homeless populations is a ubiquitous issue in society, one that is persistent throughout time, and requires thoughtful problem-solving in order to take steps forward. In an interactive map created by ESRI, the locations and metrics of homeless shelters are visualized across New York City. In the map above, you can see the capacity and number of hospitals, libraries, public schools, and other resources within a half-mile of the shelter. Interestingly, this map demonstrates how geographic information systems (GIS) are able to provide optimized solutions in issues such as homelessness with the use of spatial data. By balancing a number of different factors, including distance from libraries, hospitals, and other essential public amenities, local governments are able to establish homeless shelters where the need is greatest.
GIS often aids in the placement of homeless shelters, but it can also be used to locate and count homeless populations within a city; the Point-in-Time count is a census that occurs at the last week of January, where sheltered homeless populations are enumerated through electronic administrative records annually and unsheltered populations are contacted through outreach programs every other year. This information is crucial in understanding how homelessness is distributed in an area; when overlaid with other data containing metrics on income, unemployment, and ethnicity, spatial patterns of homelessness are revealed across the landscape. From here, cities from all over the U.S. utilize this information to create informed and effective public policy on homelessness.
As a relevant example, the COVID-19 pandemic has stressed the importance of locating, counting, and sheltering homeless populations to maintain public health. Since safety from the COVID-19 virus relies on social distancing, homeless shelter capacities have been strained, therefore creating a barrier to sanitation resources for unsheltered populations. In response, many cities utilized GIS to identify concentrations of homeless populations and placed portable restrooms and hygiene stations accordingly. The City of Portland, Oregon, even created a publicly accessible map that locates public hygiene stations.
Invaluable spatial information, carefully collected, cleaned, and processed, is able to provide public knowledge to vulnerable populations. In the context of ESRI’s homeless shelter metrics map, the public—including unsheltered populations—are able to see which shelter is most accessible and the best fit for them. Furthermore, Portland’s hygiene station map demonstrates how governments and organizations are able to communicate important information to the public through the use of mapping. Holistically, these maps demonstrate how spatial data can become a public tool and afford us a more equitable society.