Enlisting high-tech to help end homelessness in Cincinnati

Behind the scenes at Kroger is a powerful, high-tech data network that logs what shoppers buy, how often they buy it, where they buy it, how much they spend and all sorts of other detailed statistics about their buying habits.

Gathering this intelligence and using it to figure out what its shoppers want is one of the secrets of success at the nation’s largest supermarket chain.

Now, in what may be a one-of-a-kind collaboration, the outfit that designs and manages this voluminous data is employing its digital prowess on one of Cincinnati’s more intractable social issues: homelessness.

The company is 84.51, a downtown-based firm owned by Kroger whose data wizards crunch terabytes of shopper information and design individualized marketing strategies for Kroger customers. The company is lending one of its data scientists to Strategies to End Homelessness, a Cincinnati agency that coordinates the efforts of social service agencies across the community to address homelessness.

The goal: to use the information that these agencies collect to reduce, and even end, homelessness.

“They’re helping us dream a little,” says Kevin Finn, president and CEO of Strategies to End Homelessness. “If the goal is to reduce homelessness, what are the things that we should be moving toward?”

All the social service agencies that work on the issue in Hamilton County have been collecting and entering information about the people they serve for a long time.

“In Hamilton County, we were the first community in the country that had all of our homeless service agencies putting in data into the same system,” he says. “Right now, we have eight years of data from all of our shelters and street outreach programs.”

It’s a potential treasure trove of knowledge but useful only if it can be processed, organized, and analyzed to elicit insights to guide and improve the work of the agencies that focus on this difficult problem.

“We didn’t really know how to do that,” Finn says.

So, in 2017, he reached out to the people at 84.51 for help. The company, formerly called dunnhumby United States, has raised consumer research to the level of rocket science, putting together one of the largest databases of retail information in the country and using it to help Kroger and other retailers make decisions on new products, merchandising, and marketing.

Brandon Skinner, one of 84.51’s many data scientists, has been helping Finn’s agency decipher the information. Working on a community social issue is quite a change from crunching shopper data on the latest Kroger marketing promotion.

“It’s very different in terms of just about everything about it,” Skinner says. “The only things that are the same are the mechanics of the data science.”

The assist from one of the country’s leading tech firms is welcome, especially on a problem that has been so resistant to efforts to solve it. What if social agencies could get ahead of the problem and predict who was at risk of becoming homeless and work to prevent it?

“We were very conscious of the fact that there was more that we could be doing with that data to try and figure out if there were things that could predict who could become homeless in the future,” Finn says.

If so, then his agency and the others it works with could design programs and strategies to try and keep people out of homelessness.

The federal government requires agencies that work with the homeless, if they want to continue receiving government funding, to gather information about the people they serve. This includes information such as when they called an emergency hotline, what services they sought, when they sought help at a shelter, whether they were enrolled in a housing program, and how long they stayed in that program.

“We could see those things in our system,” Finn says, “but on our own we didn’t necessarily know what to do with that information or how to begin to analyze that in a systemic way.”

They wanted to learn: At what point is a person most likely to fall into homelessness again?

While the effort is still in its early stages, it has already helped inform how the agency designs its aftercare services, its programs to stay connected with the formerly homeless after they find housing.

“We found people are most likely to become homeless again within a first few months or about one year out when their first one-year lease comes up,” Finn says. “So we built our aftercare services to specifically reach out and ask if they needed help in any way at those moments when they were most likely to return to homelessness.”

The number crunchers at 84.51 also use the data the agencies collect to conduct modeling scenarios, to examine, for example, if more prevention services were available how would that reduce the homeless population? Or, if more affordable housing were available, how would that change the number of people without their own homes?

“Where could we target those resources so we could get the maximum benefit in terms of reducing homelessness?” Finn says. “Those are the kinds of things we’re moving into. They’re helping us look at the horizon.”

The work is essential to the overall health of the community. About a quarter of the homeless population is children and about a third is families, Finn says, shattering the notion that the homeless are mainly drug- or alcohol-addicted single men.

84.51’s work with the homeless agency is part of its Degrees of Giving program. The company surveys its employees to find out what their interests might be in terms of volunteerism and gives them a chance to nominate and vote for charities for the company to support.

Recently, the company has been getting more into “skilled volunteerism,” lending its data expertise to others in the community, says Erika Judd, who runs the company’s social responsibility program.

“We want to train our skills and capabilities to other analysts in the community so we’re spreading the wealth,” Judd says.

In December, Skinner and others at Strategies did some brainstorming about how to use what they are learning to fight the persistent, community quandary of homelessness. In the months ahead, Finn expects to be using that information to design efforts that are targeted and data-driven.

As he says, “We don’t want to be managing homelessness; we want to be reducing and ultimately ending homelessness.”

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Read more articles by David Holthaus.

David Holthaus is an award-winning journalist and a Cincinnati native. When not writing or editing, he's likely to be bicycling, hiking, reading, or watching classic movies.