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

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

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

Help us strengthen the social safety net during this unprecedented time

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Source: Benetech