Monday, March 27, 2017

Schrödinger’s Homeless Cat*

The Thought Experiment

Perhaps the most famous quantum physics experiment is the thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat. Erwin Schrödinger disagreed with a model of quantum mechanics. That model held that a particle exists in multiple states until observed. He used his thought experiment to disprove that model.

Imagine a sealed box containing a cat, a bottle of poison and a radioactive sample. The box is rigged, so once the sample has decayed, the bottle shatters, which kills the cat. Opening the box will allow us to detect if this has happened yet or not, but what about when the box is still sealed? According to the model Schrödinger was trying to disprove, the cat would be both alive and dead at the same time! Since that is obviously impossible, that model cannot be true. QED.

Now what remains true, and what undergirds the entire thought experiment, is that until we open the box, we don’t know if our furry feline friend is alive or dead. This is a perfect analogy for two different problems MDHA has been working on for the last two years.

(Courtesy of
The Homeless Count

In early 2015, MDHA told the community, that regarding the number of unsheltered homeless persons counted in the annual homeless count, we had this type of Schrödinger’s Cat problem. We knew there were unsheltered homeless, and we were counting them every year, but we could not be confident we were finding everyone that could be found. We had what was, at least partially, a sealed box.

We needed to improve our count methodology, and we needed more volunteers. We explained that the experiences of other communities showed that you needed a ratio of 1:1, i.e. one volunteer per one unsheltered person, to find and count everyone.  We suggested that likely there were about 1,000 unsheltered persons in our jurisdiction, Dallas and Collin Counties.

Indeed, in 2016, in our first count conducted under our new counting regime, we had about 750 volunteers, and we found about 750 unsheltered homeless persons. (In 2015 we had found only about half as many.) We still were not able to cover all the routes we had carefully plotted in 2016, so we continued to suspect that we were not finding everyone who could be found.

In 2017, we set our target at 1,000 volunteers, and we ended up with about 1,375. We covered 99.5% of our routes, and we found 1,087 unsheltered persons. The box was unsealed, the cat was fully in view, and our two-year-old prediction had proven true. This is why in the 2017 State of Homeless Address we suggested that this number be the benchmark for our work moving forward.
The Homeless Management Information System

There was one more Schrödinger’s Cat problem we pointed out in early 2015. Communities in the United States are required under Federal Law to maintain Homeless Management Information Systems, commonly known as HMIS. Organizations like MDHA are tasked with operating these systems. Most organizations receiving Federal funding for housing programs for the homeless are required to report crucial data into these systems. This is not an issue of bureaucratic compliance. The only way we can and do help individual organizations and the community at large improve in our fight against homelessness is through collecting this data, analyzing it, and using it to drive improvement.

The problem was that in early 2015, only 3%(!) of the shelter beds available to Dallas’ homeless population were reported into the system. The data reported into the system from Federally funded housing programs is tremendously valuable, but it is data about the “back-end” of a person’s journey from homelessness to housing. The shelter environment is the “front-end” of homelessness, and we had very little data about it. It was more analogous to Schrödinger’s Cat, than the annual count ever was. In this regard, the cat was 97% sealed within the box.
During the last State of the Homeless Address, we had the audience go through our own thought experiment to drive this point home. We asked everyone to stand up to represent 100% of the homeless population. Then we gradually had sections of the audience sit down, leaving only a small section standing. We explained that we could not possibly, with a straight face, contend that the data we collect about the small section standing, was representative of the entire audience.

Already back in 2015, we stated that one of the most important things Dallas needed to do was move from 11(!) separate data systems to a single open state-of-the-art HMIS system, with at least 86% of shelter beds reported into it. The Federal Government does not really consider data from a system that does not have, at least 50%, to have any meaningful validity. Only at 86% does it consider the data to be comprehensive and reliable enough to award the community points on its collective grant application for homeless housing programs. The Federal Government cut the funding for homeless housing programs in Dallas twice over the last few years, because of this very problem. That cut did not affect the shelters; it affected the housing programs.    

We have been working on this problem for the last two years, early on partnering with PCCI and now Pieces Tech to develop that single open state-of-the-art HMIS for Dallas. In the meantime, we have increased the number of shelter beds reported into HMIS from 3% almost eleven-fold, but that is still just 32%. We are excited to be on the cusp of transitioning to the Pieces Tech HMIS, and even more excited that more service providers will be signing on to be a part of it. We are determined, this year, 2017, to break that 86% mark, and finally bid Schrödinger’s Cat adieu. We owe our homeless neighbors nothing less.   

* MDHA wishes to assure readers that no cats were harmed during the writing of this blog post, though one rabbit gave me a dirty look.

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