A Community-First Approach to Strengthen the Social Safety Net

By Carrie Motamedi, posted on

Community leaders gather for panel discussion “We’re Only Human After All – Strengthening the Social Safety Net”

A panel of 5 people sit in front of an audience of around 40 people
Moderator, Kevin Fagan kicks off the discussion

With the holiday season approaching, Bay Area community members gathered for a conversation centered on human services solutions to support our region’s most vulnerable citizens. Hosted at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, the evening’s attendees included representatives from multiple corporations, a wide range of nonprofits and community organizations, government agencies, and philanthropic groups. A panel featuring representatives from Cisco Foundation, Kaiser Permanente, United Way Bay Area, and Benetech, and moderated by San Francisco Chronicle reporter Kevin Fagan, kicked off a thoughtful evening of community discussion and problem solving.

Holes in the Social Safety Net Pose Challenges

Kevin Fagan has reported on issues like homelessness and addiction for decades. He outlined the real challenges faced by people he has interviewed who are living on the street. He pointed out that people experiencing homelessness are not going to fill out a set of forms or use an app to engage in the services they need, but instead we need to meet people where they are and know how to reach them.

Panelist Kelly Batson, SVP of Community Impact from United Way Bay Area added to Kevin’s comments, underscoring the need to recognize the range of other services, in addition to shelter, that are required to support individuals and families who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness. Sometimes that means providing multiple types of services for one or more people such as food and addiction support, childcare and legal aid, and so on.

In addition, the time it can take for vulnerable citizens to receive the resources they need is the difference between a family at risk of eviction getting rent assistance to stay in their home and living on the street.

Solution Requires Technology and Community Involvement

By the end of the discussion, it was universally confirmed that the solutions — both tech and non-tech — for providing a social safety net that is efficient, effective, and visible, have to be reached via a community-driven approach.

The audience nodded their heads in agreement with Erin Connor, Public Benefit Investment Program Manager, Cisco Foundation, that this issue is not solved by technology alone, but technology is a great tool and enabler. “You don’t start with the tech; you start with the community like Benetech has.”

Benetech CEO, Betsy Beaumon, emphasized the importance of working with the organizations that will be using and evaluating technology solutions. In developing Benetech’s Service Net platform, which makes it easier for safety net referral organizations and service providers to share and maintain data on those services, Benetech has focused equally on developing the technology and a trust system for the organizations who use it to make timely and accurate referrals to individuals and families.

Service Net Partners Share Benefits of Collaboration

Last year, Cisco Foundation donated $50 M to Destination Home to address a lack of extremely low-income housing in Santa Clara County. Erin pointed out that the Cisco Foundation traditionally invests in early stage tech that addresses a gap and has a path to scale and replicate, which is why they chose to fund Service Net. Service Net is aligned with their approach by leveraging the work already happening in the human services space. “People don’t necessarily need more tech and apps; we need to maximize and leverage what is already out there,” she explained.

Sherry Novick, Managing Director, Community Benefit Programs, at Kaiser Permanente, a partner and funder of Service Net, described Kaiser’s approach to addressing the drivers of health proactively. Care providers must link their patients to other services to address total health, she asserted, highlighting Kaiser Permanente’s Thrive Local social health network that will enables healthcare providers to connect individuals to appropriate services through a robust network of nonprofit, public, and private resources.  “This is not an area in healthcare for competition, but rather collaboration,” she explained.

United Way Bay Area is a pilot partner for Benetech Service Net. Kelly Batson, SVP Community Impact, provided a positive perspective based on what she is seeing, stating that people want to be part of developing solutions, and that she is encouraged by all of the sectors getting involved and coming together to collaborate.

Betsy Beaumon concluded by sharing some of the key benefits that organizations in the completed six-month pilot have seen around sharing data and how users of services can be better served when the duplication of data is eliminated and allows for collaboration. Benetech’s survey of the San Francisco Bay Area/Sacramento region found that 74% of records about services are being maintained redundantly in individual resource directories that organizations expend significant resources to update manually.

Up Next: Service Net Pilot Expands to New Bay Area Counties and Sacramento

For Benetech, in addition to expanding the Service Net pilot in the two fastest growing Bay Area counties (Santa Clara and Alameda counties), a project is underway in Sacramento. The Sacramento project focuses on enabling area shelters to share real-time capacity and eligibility information about available beds with hospitals and referral organizations that are on the front lines assisting people looking for shelter. The hope is that everyone left the event with an understanding of how, together and across organizations, a community can start to mend the holes in the social safety net, make it stronger, and make it more visible for everyone who needs it, when they need it. Together we can make human services more human. If you would like to partner with Benetech, please go to: https://benetech.org/get-involved/