Supporting residents experiencing homelessness in Saint Paul: Interviews with Rachel Walch and Travis Bistodeau on their TOPcities sprint
.@cityofsaintpaul participated in the 2021 cohort of TOPcities, an initiative of @CPI_foundation & @BeeckCenter, which supports #localgovernments to transform public data into digital tools that address local challengesShare article
"The problems people face today are not the same as 5 years ago - so solutions are going to change over time. We need to be prepared to use processes that allow us to shift & react to the needs of people as they change" Rachel Walch @cityofsaintpaulShare article
"You need to think about the long-term maintenance, sustainability, and support of technology solutions... bringing in service providers to look at the backend of how the app would work and would it be an easy thing for them to maintain" Travis Bistodeau @cityofsaintpaulShare article
The City of Saint Paul participated in the 2021 cohort of TOPcities. TOPcities supports local governments to transform public data into digital tools that address pressing local challenges. TOPcities is an initiative of the Centre for Public Impact and Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, made possible with the generous support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Google.org.
Read the 2021 cohort report for more information about Saint Paul and San José's TOPcities sprint, dedicated to addressing housing-related challenges exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. To implement a TOPcities sprint in your community, be sure to download our TOPcities sprint toolkit!
COVID-19 caused widespread economic hardship in communities across the nation that will continue to affect Americans’ day-to-day lives for years to come. Now more than ever, we need new models for working together toward data-driven solutions to help communities recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, the Centre for Public Impact and the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, have founded The Opportunity Project for Cities (TOPcities) - an 18-week innovation sprint that brings together government changemakers, community leaders and volunteer technologists from Google.org to better understand and address the problems facing their communities.
As part of the inaugural TOPcities cohort, the City of Saint Paul, in partnership with M Health Fairview, Google.org volunteers, and advising from Heading Home Ramsey, conducted outreach, interviewed residents and service providers, and leveraged existing open-source tech resources to co-create a product with the community that has shown to be a promising tool to help address the housing crisis they are currently facing. Many Americans experiencing homelessness have struggled to access resources like shelter, medical services, and counseling during the pandemic. To keep their communities healthy and safe, TOPcities participants are working together to seek out new, innovative, and inclusive solutions, and so far… they’ve found great success.
The City of Saint Paul, in partnership with M Health Fairview, Google.org volunteers, and advising from Heading Home Ramsey, conducted outreach, interviewed residents and service providers, and leveraged existing open-source tech resources to co-create a product with the community that has shown to be a promising tool to help address the housing crisis they are currently facing.
Through TOPcities, the sprint team conducted community research that helped them understand that residents experiencing homelessness desired greater autonomy and a centralized source of truth when accessing services. Based on insights from this process and a scan of available tools on the market, the team partnered with and adapted ShelterApp, an existing mobile app and website, that helps residents experiencing homelessness connect to services in their areas, such as open shelters, public transportation, crisis hotlines, and much more. Read more about Saint Paul’s sprint experiences, and learn how to run a TOPcities sprint in the TOPcities Report & Toolkit.
We spoke with TOPcities participants, Rachel Walch, Innovation Consultant for the Saint Paul Office of the Mayor, and Travis Bistodeau, Deputy Director of the Saint Paul Department of Safety and Inspections, about the monumental impact that listening to the Saint Paul community had on the success of their product. We also discussed how instrumental it is to use processes that allow enough flexibility for a project to shift and react to the needs of people as they change.
Through TOPcities, the Saint Paul sprint team set out to understand how their residents experienced homelessness and co-design innovative solutions that met their needs. The City partnered with M Health Fairview and Google.org volunteers to hear directly from residents experiencing homelessness, street outreach workers, and service providers about how to best connect residents experiencing homelessness with needed resources. “This process broadened the conversation with the community,” Bistodeau said, “I talk to outreach a lot right now, and I was talking to those experiencing homelessness a lot back when we first started in February, but it was really beneficial for our team to hear from service providers and those that are experiencing homelessness. This reconfirmed what we were already thinking and really drove it forward.”
Moving towards co-created solutions
TOPcities partners community organizations with local governments throughout the sprint, moving beyond simply engaging community leaders to elevating them as experts and partners who can co-design solutions. “It is different in that way,” Walch said, “We’re not going in with a solution, we don’t know what we’re going to come out with and that is scary, but we are going to go in and talk to people and figure out what their experience is, and understand what their problems are, and then test our assumptions about those problems, and then we’re going to build something with them.”
Moreover, by gathering insights from residents, service providers, and street outreach workers through TOPcities, the Saint Paul sprint team was able to adapt their solution to the immediate and specific needs of the Saint Paul community. “The problems that people face today are not the same as the problems people faced five years ago - so the solutions are going to change over time. We need to be prepared to use processes that allow us to shift and react to the needs of people as they change, and we need to build our resiliency in our systems to allow for that,” Walch explained. The Saint Paul sprint team designed new features to add to the existing ShelterApp platform based directly on what they heard from residents. For example, residents shared that they didn’t always know where to go to receive help for their specific needs, so the team added a feature to provide directions on how to sign up for a bed at a given shelter.
The problems that people face today are not the same as the problems people faced five years ago - so the solutions are going to change over time. We need to be prepared to use processes that allow us to shift and react to the needs of people as they change, and we need to build our resiliency in our systems to allow for that.
Designing ShelterApp for today and tomorrow
As the Saint Paul sprint team set about adapting ShelterApp for their community, they realized they had to plan for product sustainability early if they were to truly meet the needs of their community. “You need to think about the long-term maintenance, sustainability, and support of technology solutions...Bringing in service providers to look at the backend of how the app would work and would it be an easy thing for them to support and maintain going forward, is something we thought about on the front-end,” Bistodeau said, “We were really thoughtful about crafting something that can be sustained.”
Walch also emphasized that, in addition to investing in tech sustainability, governments must equally invest in generating community buy-in to ensure products have the necessary support to drive long-term impact. “This work only moved forward so successfully, quickly, and enthusiastically because we made a point of keeping Heading Home Ramsey informed every step of the way - we reached out to people, presented a few times and kept everyone informed through the weekly updates,” Walch said, “I think that has made it really clear that if we don’t build a solution into the structures that exist and bring community folks along, it doesn’t matter what we do as a city, we are going to continue to spin our wheels.”
Lessons learned for supporting residents experience homelessness
Flexibility and adaptability are necessary in designing sustainable tech solutions to address homelessness, however, resources and support from key decision-makers and stakeholders are crucial in actually implementing those solutions. “Having a high-ranking product and issue champion, the Deputy Mayor, who has spent hundreds of hours working on unsheltered homelessness over the past year has been really critical to moving projects like this forward. If she wasn’t involved, there is a chance this tool wouldn’t have gotten off the ground,” Bistodeau said.
Walch also shared how tech tools can be a stepping stone to the broader, necessary, and often difficult changes in cultures and systems that can be transformative for residents experiencing homelessness. "I knew there was going to be culture change involved in the TOPcities sprint, but I didn’t anticipate such big system changes needing to happen for the longevity of the tool to operate in the way residents and providers want it to operate, like securing their own bed for the night and real-time communication with providers - that’s not only culture change but also systems change,” Walch said, “If we want to get to a place where this is possible, which residents and providers said they wanted, we have to change how the system operates and that is going to be challenging."
What’s next for Saint Paul?
The City recently presented ShelpterApp to the Heading Home Ramsey for a vote and received immediate approval for a second phase of the work, which will involve building out a cross-organization governing structure for the tool, securing tech support for the tool, and furthering user engagement. The City shared that the TOPcities process of deeply engaging community partners and residents throughout the entire process played a key role in Heading Home Ramsey’s warm reception to the tool and rapid vote of approval for Phase II.
Download the TOPcities report and sprint toolkit
Does your team want to build data-led solutions to pressing community challenges? Download the complete TOPcities report and sprint toolkit for step-by-step instructions to run a TOPcities sprint in your city.