Editor’s note: This is part two of a five-part series addressing homelessness.

When our family first started serving at the Catholic Community Center, Pamela Atkinson told me the food we would serve was secondary. Much more important, she said, was the emotional sustenance we provided by looking each individual in the eye, greeting them with a firm handshake and warmly thanking them for being with us. She emphasized that the single interaction we had with them might be the only respectful human contact some experienced all month. 

An 85-year-long study by Harvard University concluded that quality relationships are the single greatest predictor of life expectancy, health and happiness. Humans are relational beings — we all crave warmth, meaningful engagement and shared experience. Tragically, those experiencing chronic homelessness — perhaps the most vulnerable members of our society — are often those most deprived of positive human connection and relationships. 

Across the country, too many municipalities take a one-size-fits-all approach to addressing homelessness — providing shelter, food and other basic services in an all-too-often impersonalized, general way. For individuals experiencing chronic homelessness, what they most need is the human dignity that originates from uplifting relationships, individualized care and from simply being known.

Hennepin County, Minnesota, is just one of several forward-thinking municipalities that have developed their services around a comprehensive “know-each-by-name” system. While most counties around the country are experiencing rapid growth in chronic homelessness, Hennepin County has achieved a 28% decrease in chronic homelessness since 2021 and has set the audacious goal by 2025 for ZERO individuals in their county to experience homelessness.  

The secret? The county squarely focuses on identifying the root challenges for individuals and then invests in coordinated services that are delivered in personalized ways to each.

First, despite many who struggle with mental health disabilities initially wanting anonymity, Hennepin County knows better — that is not what is in the person’s long-term best interest. Therefore, they provide each with identification, giving a person the self-respect that accompanies identity, and tracks each by name, while simultaneously ensuring privacy rights are protected. 

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Second, every person has a designated case worker who creates a customized care plan focused on helping the individual recover, rather than merely sustaining them without regard for the conditions that fomented their current circumstances.

Third, case workers are empowered to coordinate and approve services and resources quickly for the individuals they support. 

Finally, case workers maintain a data-tracking dashboard dedicated to every person they support so they can know what is working or not working as each is expected to improve along a continuum of care. The aggregated data is then shared openly among service providers to learn and apply best practices, and service providers are incentivized to adopt both the philosophy and the technology that enable personalization, coordination and recovery. 

The mechanisms of accountability help providers progress and concurrently, by definition, assumes that each individual is capable of improvement. While personalized, human-to-human interactions are at the center of this recovery, technology also plays a vital role — enabling a know-each-by-name tracking system and aligning the many people that must work together to deliver individualized care. 

Google’s recent innovations in Miami-Dade County through a program called “WayFinder Miami” provide more examples of how technology can unite care providers, track outcomes and propel individualized care. WayFinder Miami is a real-time, web-based technology that connects case managers, law enforcement, the justice system and service providers. Furthermore, it notifies providers regarding each person’s individualized treatment plan, informing providers what best works for an individual so that support is rapid, coordinated, effective and personal. For example, if a police officer is called to help someone after a mental health outburst in an ER waiting room, the officer can search for the person in WayFinder, understand their individualized care plan, contact their case worker and immediately know how to best help the person.

As I’ll discuss in tomorrow’s column, society needs more social workers to help provide the irreplaceable face-to-face care that drives successful know-each-by-name systems. But smart technology can help scale these personalized services in ways that build dignity and produce lasting outcomes. 

Too many of society’s most vulnerable are falling through the cracks, cycling through ERs, jails, shelters and the street without anyone holistically recognizing their individual needs and circumstances. As a community, we must stop this expensive and fruitless cycle. If our definition of success is improving human dignity through long-term recovery, we start by knowing them by name and organizing our systems and services accordingly.

Please go to www.utah-impact.org to engage with other Utahns committed to helping those experiencing homelessness.

Randy Shumway is the founder and chairman of the Cicero Group, the treasurer of the Utah Impact Partnership and the co-chair of the Utah Homeless Council.