COVID-19 Pushed The Social Safety Net Past Its Breaking Point

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The Bay Area’s social safety net is in tatters; together we can repair it and bring a new level of community care

A woman holds her baby in her lap and sits in a waiting room

It’s hard enough to find basic goods like toilet paper and rice at the store, right now. For individuals and families in need, finding food, shelter, and essential supplies has become nearly impossible. With children home from school and more and more residents out of work, the need for human services is greater than ever, but the pressure that COVID-19 has placed on the social safety net makes it extremely difficult to get information on and access to these services. To meet this unprecedented and growing need, the Bay Area community must come together to implement a new solution that helps people get the services they need quickly.

A Safety Net That Was Already Strained

The Bay Area social safety net has been in crisis for a while. While there are thousands of organizations providing critical services to help those in need, it’s incredibly difficult to navigate on your own. To meet this need, hundreds of organizations ranging from county governments to community centers to web-based directories, and 2-1-1s maintain individual databases about local service providers and guide those seeking assistance by referring them to the organization best fit to solve their problem.

These referrals are only as good as the data that they are based on, and maintaining accurate data on services is a challenge that exhausts significant resources for referral organizations. More so, our analysis of 10+ referral providers showed that 74% of information on all local services were being maintained redundantly in different databases, indicating significant inefficiency, and a need for a new, more collaborative solution.  

Crisis Pushes the Need for an Accelerated Solution

2018 estimates showed that approximately 1.7 million people were living at or below the poverty line. Today, demand for many Bay Area food banks is up tenfold, and the Bay Area is expected to lose as many as 800,000 jobs as the economic repercussions of the pandemic reverberate through our community. More people will be relying on the social safety net than ever before, many who have never had to access these services, and finding accurate information about them has only gotten more challenging.

Nearly all service providers have had to make changes to their operations in response to COVID-19. Stay at home orders have caused many nonprofits to suspend certain services or move them online. Many shelters have had to reduce their capacity or completely shutter due to health concerns. Other organizations, such as school lunch programs are widening the services they offer to meet the growing need. This means that all at once, much of the data available about social and human services was rendered obsolete.

Siloed collection and maintenance of information on services will not work in the current climate. Contact information, hours, locations, qualification requirements, and services provided have all changed, and they’ll continue to shift as our region navigates this unprecedented challenge. Service providers will not be able to respond to constant requests from other members of the ecosystem to confirm the availability of services, hours, and locations. We need to come together to ensure that all Bay Area residents can get access to the critical services that they need. No matter where a person in need reaches out for help, let’s make sure that the referral provider on the receiving end of that call is empowered with accurate information.

This will require a coordinated effort of all safety-net organizations to share timely information about available services in the region quickly and effectively. Shelters, food pantries, referral organizations, and government agencies can work together to make better data on local human services available for everyone.

Collaboration Enables New Level of Community Care

This collaborative solution was already well underway before the current crisis hit. United by the goal to improve access to services in the Bay Area, a huge cohort of Bay Area organizations came together with Benetech to develop a new more efficient system for collecting and sharing information on local services. This ultimately led to the creation of Benetech Service Net, an open standards data exchange platform that makes it easier to share and maintain information on local social and human services.

Building on the success of our 2019 Bay Area pilot, we are opening up the platform to other Bay Area organizations. Widespread use of Service Net will enable the level of information sharing necessary to support our community in this unprecedented time. Any updates on available services entered into Service Net will be available for all participating organizations to view and use. Service providers will have the capability to input their updates about the services that they provide directly to the platform, enabling them to communicate efficiently and frequently with all organizations using the Service Net platform.

This kind of collaboration would enable a new level of community care. When a 2-1-1 operator refers a family with an infant to a food bank, he could tell the family to go early on Tuesday, because that’s when the foodbank receives formula shipments. A person with diabetes experiencing food insecurity would not have to risk exposure taking public transportation to a soup kitchen because the county human services directory that he consulted was updated to show that the community center around the corner from his home was now offering free grab-and-go meals. The Bay Area has long been a leader in innovation, and together, we can meet this unprecedented need with an unprecedented level of service for our most vulnerable residents.

An Urgent Call to Action

If we do not act quickly now, we will let too many community members fall through the holes of a broken system. Coming together the Bay Area social safety-net ecosystem can weave a new fabric of care, where people are empowered with information to access the services they need to weather hard times and get back up again. Together, we can ensure that the social safety net supports all.

KP Naidu is VP, Benetech Labs. Organizations that are interested in joining Service Net can email [email protected].

To learn more about Benetech Service Net read Weaving a Stronger Social Safety Net.

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