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App Delivers Smoother, More Efficient Homeless Count

Sandra Averhart
WUWF Public Media

Opening Doors Northwest Florida held its annual U-Count Homeless Resource Day Thursday at the Salvation Army. The event follows the yearly Point-In-Time Count of homeless individuals living in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, which at last check totaled 528. 

Most of the surveys in the 2020 count were completed with a new software application that’s getting rave reviews.

“I think the mobile app that we’re using this year has gone really well. We’ve had very little issues that we’ve had to trouble shoot. It’s really made things flow a lot more smoothly this year,” said Aaron Jacobs, who’s managing the app-based data collection for Opening Doors Northwest Florida. The continuum of care agency conducts the count for this two-county area.

According to Jacobs, the Hyperion App, developed by Zak Miller, generally has worked as advertised.

“So, one of the great things it was supposed to do was give us this real-time view of what our Point-In-Time count looks like,” he noted. “It shows us where our volunteers are, where the hotspots for homeless are in Pensacola, as well as Milton and other places. We’re able to track what categories of homeless are out there, like where the chronic homeless are, where youth homeless are, things like that.”

“I’ve noticed that the Alfred Washburn Center has been one of our hotspots this year,” declared Martika Baker, coordinator for the 2020 homeless count. “There’s also been at the...”

With the information at hand, thanks to the app, Baker quickly retrieves the data she needs from the app’s website.

“Richards Memorial (home to Bright Bridge Ministries) has been a hotspot and also Loaves and Fishes, surprisingly,” Baker said, pointing to the fact that they were running out of their U-Count wristbands at that the latter location. “So, the major places where we were running out of those, that’s where we’re saying, “Oh, wow, that’s a pickup of our homeless at that spot this year.”

The hotspots are generally places where such individuals can check their mail, get a hot meal and just come in from the cold. After weeks of mild winter temperatures, it was cold on Wednesday.

At noon on that day, a few hours into the count, Baker, Jacobs and other members of the Opening Doors team, some armed with their own computers, gathered in front of a large monitor to watch for the latest count data from the Hyperion App.  

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
This interactive map is a feature of the new Hyperion App that was used for the first time in a count of the local homeless population.

“This is Santa Rosa County’s current status of what we could see actually being entered in,” said Baker. “As long as the geo-code can capture where the surveyor is, you’re going to get your ping here and a little drop will happen.”

The interactive map is dotted with numerous colorful drops marking the location and number of those counted. Green denoted youth, blue for adults, and red for both.

With each click and drag, Baker is able to move around and zoom in and out, at will.

She winds up zooming in on the previously identified hotspot, the Alfred Washburn Center, located near the intersection at Brent (Lane) and Palafox (Street).

“As you can see, the closer that you get, there’s a lot more happening there’s a lot more that’s happening there,” she said as she zoomed in. “I want to back out, go to another hub. This is Beggs Lane, so this is one of the camps.”

As Baker zipped around the area on the map, we never lost sight of the real-time count depicted in the bottom right corner. During my visit, which was after the morning crush, it inched up from 266 households surveyed to about 280. The number was 348 by the end of Wednesday. Again, the total to 528 after Thursday’s U-Count event, with a few more surveys expected to trickle in.

For Opening Doors Northwest Florida, the 2020 PIT Count marked the first-time use of an app. After some hesitation, Aaron Jacobs, who’s been overseeing the operation, was glad to see volunteers warm up to it.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Martika Baker, center, and Aaron Jacobs, right, are joined by other Opening Doors Northwest Florida staff and volunteers are monitoring real-time homeless count data via a new app.

“The third training we did last week, I would say over 50 people showed up to that and there were some really good questions, really good discussions,” said Jacobs. “They brought up some things we hadn’t thought of before and we were able to resolve those issues before we started the PIT count. And, for the most part those people are embracing it.”

After what seemed to be a slow start on the day of the count, Baker recalled the excitement of seeing the app in action.

“Then, we got an influx of maybe 60 surveys, and then I was like, “Oh, it’s working,” she proclaimed. “Then we just kept watching and watching it as it increased. And, we were like, ‘Okay, people are using it.’”

Again, the benefits of the Hyperion PIT Count App, which was free this year, include instant data on the front end, and faster processing, verification, and reporting of the data to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which requires the annual homeless counts.

Listen to Opening Doors Executive Director John Johnson's thoughts on the 2020 Point-In-Time Homeless Count, hours after it got underway on Wednesday, Jan. 22.

Opening Doors Northwest Florida Executive Director John Johnson is sold on the app, and says it would be well worth the expected cost of about $3,000 for 2021.

“I have high hopes to continue to use this,” said Johnson. “It’s a very good app and we’ll provide feedback back to the guy that created the app, so we can integrate it and curtail it to our specific use. So, we’re very happy.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.