When WBEZ began investigating the city’s 311 shelter request system earlier this year, one of the first things we wanted to assess was how well the system that fields calls is working.
What we found: It’s nearly impossible to tell because of numerous data entry errors and fundamental flaws with how data is entered into the system’s only database that tracks shelter calls. (To read about all of our findings and the implications for Chicagoans, click here.)
While there appears to be a significant decline in the percentage of calls marked as successful placements, we can’t determine exactly by how much. The majority of calls are tagged with overly broad categories that describe a range of different outcomes.
These calls are tagged as “completed” and “request canceled” in the database and represent roughly 75% of calls from 2020 through this year, according to a WBEZ analysis.
According to the Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS), the agency that manages the 311 shelter system, a call tagged as “completed” currently includes “requests where the individual left the request location and could not be located, requests that expired due to no available beds, duplicate requests and requests where the requester reported no longer needing assistance.” DFSS cites a similar list of outcomes for calls tagged as “request canceled.”
DFSS acknowledges improvements for clarity need to be made and is working to “better define and refine the data fields that are collected,” said Kimberly Howard, director of homeless prevention for the agency.
In addition, there are several thousand requests that do not have an outcome classification at all, meaning it’s often impossible to tell what happened to these callers. Nearly all of them show up as still open or canceled under another column.
Several thousand more calls are still marked as “open” for months after they were made, what DFSS describes as a “data entry issue.”
In response to WBEZ’s analysis, in a follow-up email a DFSS spokesperson wrote, “without reviewing the data in detail, we are unable to comment on data quality as there are multiple factors that could lead to a request remaining open beyond the designated close time.”
If a 311 call does result in shelter placement, it’s also impossible to know where. DFSS does not currently mandate tracking where callers were sent for shelter. Even when noted in the record, it’s spotty. In 2022, nearly half of successful requests did not include the name of the shelter.
“As with any manual data entry, there is always the possibility of error,” wrote a DFSS spokesperson.
The city’s 311 database is the only source of information about shelter request calls. But what happens when the sole record of 311 shelter requests is riddled with data errors?
For advocates invested in improving how Chicagoans get shelter, the unreliable database makes it difficult to identify what needs to change.
“You can’t turn to 311 data to help make the argument about what the real need is in the city of Chicago and what the funding should be,” said Douglas Schenkelberg, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. “That’s frustrating.”
Amy Qin is a data reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @amyqin12.
Anna Savchenko is a reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @annasavchenkoo.