January 9, 2009

Valuable Online Resources: Finding Help

We attended an event on Wednesday, hosted by the DC Women's Agenda, about new online resources for direct service providers.

And despite the bad weather, the room in MLK Library (the subject of an unrelated and ongoing debate on this here blog) was pretty packed, to the pleasant surprise of the event organizers.

"Today's event would have been important two years ago," said Debbie Billet-Roumell, coordinator of the DC Women's Agenda, about the need for greater access to information about resources for low income communities. "Today, with the economic downturn, it's especially important."

The three tools on display included: an extensive listing of information about safe housing, a Google Maps mashup of local food resources, and a detailed budgeting tool for livable income planning.

Let's review each:

1) The Housing Resource Center is jam-packed with information about where and how to secure various kinds of housing for at-risk women. This resource is especially important because, as Suzanne Marcus, Director of Operations for the District Alliance for Safe Housing , told us, there are just not a lot of safe housing programs available in the District. (There are two - My Sister's Place and House of Ruth, and they're usually filled to capacity, "so you have to think creatively," said Suzanne.)

The Housing Resource Center includes listings and details for emergency, transitional, and permanent housing, and provides specialized information for individuals with disability, the elderly, LGBTQ, undocumented residents, and more. even includes listings for the Maryland and Virginia areas. Also of note is a Safety Plan checklist (at the back of the Resource Guide PDF), that can help guide through the process of finding a pathway to stability.

DASH has offered a very useful resource here, and they mentioned that they're currently seeking funding to translate everything into Spanish.
2) SOME advocate (and Friend of Bread) Joni Podschun demoed the DC Food Finder. (Bread for the City helped lead up the Food Finder initiative, and Joni has discussed it on the blog before.)

As Joni noted, affording food is a challenge in and of itself to many DC residents -- but it's also not quite a sufficient condition to attaining food security. You also need to be able to get to the food, which isn't always easy in a city where many neighborhoods are over a mile from supermarkets, etc. The Food Finder offers multiple layers of information laid out on the map of the city, revealing an array of food resources, including not just pantries and emergency food supplies but also WIC centers and farmer's markets.

Some updates on the Foodfinder: it's been recently translated into Spanish (which, as Joni noted, makes the site somewhat cumbersome as currently laid out) and there's an RSS feed that will allow you to receive updates about changes and additions to the resource database. Lastly, assistance is also available through the Capital Area Food Bank Hunger Lifeline at 202-639-9770 -- and all users are encouraged to report changes and new resources as you find out about them.

3) The last tool of the day was the DC Metro Area Self Sufficiency Calculator. For service providers, the potential utility of this tool is impressive: it enables detailed and controlled down-to-the-dollar planning toward self-sufficiency. (Although as a non-direct-service-provider person, I confess my attention wandered and then I got caught by the presenter checking out Youtube clips-- sorry!) Camille Cormier, of Wider Opportunities for Women, introduced the Calculator with a quick primer on its central metric, the Self-Sufficiency Standard, (which is an accurate measure of the income needed by a family to make ends meet -- much more accurate than the highly-problematic Federal Poverty Level -- suffice to say that the SSS merits entire blog posts of its own).

The DCMASS Calculator asks for step-by-step information about income, family size, supplemental incomes and other variables. It calculates it all out and measures it against the Self-Sufficiency Standard and even allows you to adjust certain variables for the sake of comparison through multiple scenarios (i.e., if this income increased to x, and this expense decreased to y, you'd be z closer to a viable budget). It still has kinks (i.e. if a person receives Social Security Insurance, and you calculate a scenario in which their income increases, the calculator doesn't automatically recalculate SSI benefits, even though in real-life SSI is determined according to income levels) but overall this is a useful planning tool.

The calculator is the cool part, but the more valuable stuff offered by DCMASSC is the location-specific information on job market s (including neighboring communities in Maryland and Virginia). So the user can identify possible jobs that a) don't require degrees and b) pay enough to meet the Self-Sufficiency Standard, and even c) find job-training opportunities in case a) and b) don't yet quite match up up.

Taken together, the three sites reveal an array of possibilities: localized information, collectively generated, and made accessible to anyone with computer access. I can imagine further advances in the future that would facilitiate even more robust collaborative involvement - creating user-generated information, like a Yelp for social resources. We'll be covering these tools in more depth in the future on this blog.

No comments: