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News / Northwest

Can AI help homeless families find long-term solutions? A local model shows promise

By Cameron Sheppard, The News Tribune
Published: May 5, 2024, 6:02am

TACOMA — An organization working from a portable building in Spanaway has recently been awarded a $1 million grant from Pierce County for its work getting families experiencing homelessness into stable housing.

Family Promise of Pierce County operates on the backside of Spanaway Elementary School’s property in a portable no longer used by the school. While its facilities are humble, its mission is noble — give families experiencing homelessness the support, dignity and empowerment they need to find housing security and stability.

Since the beginning of 2024, the team of a couple administrators, a few dedicated case managers and a handful of volunteers has reported helping 33 families into housing security, in just a few short months.

The county awarded Family Promise of Pierce County $1 million under the Shelter Access Hub Grant, county staff cited that the organization had been in line with “Goal 5” of the Comprehensive Plan to End Homelessness — “Meet the immediate needs of people experiencing homelessness.”

Devon Isakson in her role as social service supervisor for Pierce County announced that Family Promise had been awarded the grant. Isakson described Family Promise’s efforts as “innovative, creative and inclusive of interventions at all levels,” as they collaborated and built partnerships with organizations throughout the region’s homelessness response system.

She said Family Promise of Pierce County was awarded the grant over several other applicants because of its proposal and current efforts to partner with 25 shelters and homeless service providers; offer 24/7 services in-person, online and over the phone; provide trained staff members to assess individual needs and preferences; and to offer hotel stays when immediate shelter options are unavailable.

How they are helping

Rosa Larios had been staying at a shelter through Family Promise with her four children. Two weeks prior, a case manager picked them up from the side of the road only a short time after she contacted Family Promise.

She had been living with her four children outside in parks and at truck stops since October when her husband died.

“I kind of lost it,” she said of the trauma she experienced leading to the loss of their home.

She described the difficulty of bouncing from shelter to shelter with three teenage children and a 1 year old. Crossing town for the promise of a spot inside a shelter, just to be turned away when they got there. Her frustration with facilities that were advertised as being for families but where her kids could witness open drug use. Waiting for the temperature to drop below 35 degrees so emergency cold weather shelters would open, even though “36 degrees is still cold.”

“I was pretty close to giving up,” she said. “But I knew I couldn’t.”

When she and her kids arrived at Family Promise, they were fed and given a place to sleep. Staff members ran errands to get the medicine her daughter needed. She described the humility and dignity with which her family was treated, they weren’t “just a number.”

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“They treat us like people,” her eldest daughter said. “Some places don’t treat us like people.”

Since being there her kids had been consistently transported to their schools in a different town. Her youngest daughter had awoken from a nap in the comfort of a crib. From her face her mother wiped the remnants of a meal she had had before she slept. She played and smiled.

When asked what she hoped for her and her family in the near future, Larios had one word: “Stability.”

“Only I can provide that for them,” she said.

That day Larios had been awarded a voucher for housing for her and her family, one she had applied for since being connected with Family Promise. She had never had to apply for a place to rent before, but felt assured that the folks at Family Promise would give her any help she needed.

How Family Promise of Pierce County seeks to innovate

The organization is an affiliate of the national Family Promise organization, but its ideas and model are largely its own. Samara Jenkins, co-founder of the Family Promise of Pierce County and pastor at Spanaway United Methodist Church, said she heard of Family Promise after the church got involved in supporting people who were unhoused and sleeping in their vehicles through the county’s Safe Parking program.

She said that even though their local chapter is an affiliate of a larger organization, it was allowed and supported to develop its own model and was able to “take it and run with it.”

When asked why Family Promise’s Pierce County program has been so successful, Jenkins said it was the team’s intense case management focused on accessibility, with a 24/7 phone line and hours that extended past what many other organizations and shelters offer, as well as a focus on lowering barriers to services and support.

She described the work the chapter does and the systems it uses as an “antithesis” to what exists and has traditionally been used.

Coordinated Entry is a unified system in the county to account for how individuals in need of organizational services access those supports. Jenkins said the system is intended to reduce wasted resources by tracking which individuals have used which services, but she said the system often becomes a “bottleneck” as there are more people applying for services than employees who are able to process and efficiently connect people to the resources they need.

With help from a $500,000 Google Workspace grant, Family Promise of Pierce County has designed and developed its own AI system which it uses to help cut through the red tape of the social work bureaucracy and more efficiently support the needs and goals of families and service providers alike.

The system, called Ash Nazg (pronounced “Ash Naz”), a reference to “The Lord of The Rings,” trilogy’s one ring to rule them all, is a comprehensive system with many functions, including intake assessment, resource application, occupational service assistance, inter-system communications and remote client support, among other things.

“It’s designed to make things easier for case managers and clients,” Jenkins said of the Ash Nazg system. “So they can do the work they need to do.”

She said the system was the “baby” of CEO Steve Decker, a self-described “giant nerd.”

According to Decker, federal guidelines require service providers to use databases like the Homeless Management Information System, or Pierce County’s Coordinated Entry to track how individuals are using resources and documented internally as a way of accounting for public resources. But Decker described these systems as “archaic” and often difficult to navigate, with specific requirements and documentation that does not always fit the unique needs and situations that many client families find themselves in.

He said that the Ash Nazg is intended to remove these barriers.

Clients begin by filling out a questionnaire regarding their current situation, which can be done on a mobile device. It asks questions about current income, level of education, number of children, current food security. These are questions that a social worker would typically ask someone entering the system during what Decker estimated to be an hour-long interview, before the case manager would have to type up a documented report on their situation. Now, with Ash Nazg, the questionnaire can be filled out in minutes and AI uses that information to generate a report to be sent to the social worker in seconds.

Decker said that the time the interview assessment would take could now be used to get the client referred directly to the services they need based on the AI generated-report. If the client is not able to connect with the case worker for whatever reason, the system can send direct referrals and contact information for providers through a text or email to the client.

Clients utilizing services are legally required to sign dozens of consent forms and legal documents, which Decker said can take some time and coordination. Missing one signed form could be the difference between a client getting housing assistance and them remaining unhoused. With their system, a single e-signature can be made digitally and applied to all the necessary documents in seconds.

If a client is looking for affordable housing or has an affordable housing voucher, the AI system can be set up to directly notify a client and their case manager the moment when a Zillow listing has been posted that meets the necessary criteria.

In less than two minutes Decker demonstrated how the system could generate a resume after asking a series of brief questions.

Decker said that when families are unhoused, often their parents will be under legal inquiry by agencies like the Department of Children, Youth, Families — to make sure their children are in a safe situation. Often it will be requested that parents show documentation about their efforts to seek housing, employment or other markers of well-being. Decker said this could mean hours of effort gathering documentation and printing them to show proof to prevent the government from taking custody of their children.

Decker made a couple of clicks with the stroke of his mouse and all of the necessary documentation for that situation popped up on the screen, with an electronic signature ready to be sent to a judge or agency.

When clients call the Family Promise of Pierce County number, the system recognizes their number and connects them directly with their case manager.

“How do we remove barriers to getting people housed?” That is the Ash Nazg system will continue to be used to answer. On June 1 the system will be open for county-wide use, according to Decker.

Jenkins said Family Promise of Pierce County is continuing to scale-up, and will use the grant funding from Pierce County to hire four additional case managers. The organization also has plans to open another facility in Parkland in May.

When asked by the Pierce County Council’s Select Committee on Homelessness how the team at Family Promise of Pierce County measures success, Jenkins said by “the number of times we dust ourselves off and keep going.”