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This App Wants to Track Every Homeless Person in San Francisco

The epicenter of innovation is turning to software to help the most vulnerable get off the streets.
St. Boniface Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.
St. Boniface Church in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

On paper, it looks as if San Francisco shouldn’t have a homelessness problem. There are as many permanent housing beds as people who need them. The city spends hundreds of millions of dollars to help get people off the streets, and last year voters approved a measure to raise $300 million annually to tackle the issue by taxing local companies. Yet there are about 7,500 homeless in the city because of soaring rents and the difficulty of treating substance abuse, mental illness, and other health concerns.

Now the world capital of innovation and Big Data is betting that streamlined information is the answer. City officials have spent the past two years building a digital program called ONE System that can track and monitor every homeless person in San Francisco. The idea is simple: Collect and sort information associated with the homeless to more effectively assess risk factors, determine those most in need, and get those people into available shelters and transitional housing. But the reality is more complicated. Five months after its introduction, ONE System has helped get only 70 people off the streets as it contends with the same challenges that have plagued past efforts—as well as new ones, including persuading the city’s most at-risk population to sign on to a program with echoes of Big Brother.