This App Hopes to Give Homeless Outreach Workers Real-Time Data While They're on the Street

Eric Zassenhaus
Eric Zassenhaus is dot.LA's managing editor for platforms and audience. He works to put dot.LA stories in front of the broadest audience in the best possible way. Prior to joining dot.LA, he served as an editorial and product lead at Pacific Standard magazine and at NPR affiliate KPCC in Los Angeles. He has also worked as a news producer, editor and art director. Follow him on Twitter for random thoughts on publishing and L.A. culture.
This App Hopes to Give Homeless Outreach Workers Real-Time Data While They're on the Street
Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Los Angeles invests hundreds of millions each year to alleviate homelessness, but the networks that underlie those efforts are often held together by legal pads and spreadsheets.

It took a person who's suffered through the system to try to update it, so that the homeless and their advocates can get what they need, when they need it.


Anthony Greco is one of the few people who can say he's been on most sides of the issue. He's lived on the streets, dealt with homeless family members and friends, he's worked in the shelters and counseled people dealing with substance abuse.

"I've literally been on every side of this problem in one way or another," Greco says. "I've been trying to get people into treatment in some way or another since I was seven years old."

The Get Help platform is a result of his lifetime of experience with substance abuse and homelessness. And it's been so effective that Los Angeles took it from beta to a basic tool in the city's plan to deal with one of its largest emergencies: Getting homeless people off the street during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anthony Greco is the founder of the Get Help app.

A Lifetime Getting People Help 

Greco grew up bouncing from house to house while his mother sought help at substance abuse clinics.

"When I was 15 years old, one day I came home from school and my mom and her boyfriend and that family had moved away out of town," Greco says, "and the house was empty except for all the stuff in my room."

That led him into his own struggle first with homelessness, then with substance abuse and finally into recovery and toward helping people in the same circumstances he'd once found himself in. Ultimately, he got his PhD in clinical psychology and worked with patients with substance abuse issues.

But at every step in his career, Greco found himself trying to solve the same problem: How do you match a person to the services they need at the moment they're willing to ask for help? Having real-time information is key, he says.

"There's a point when someone says that they want to get help," he says. "It's a simultaneous feeling of excitement and absolute dread at the same time, because on one hand, you're so excited that they want to get help and they want to go somewhere and then on the other hand the next thought is where am I going to go? Where am I going to call with how am I going to find an available bed? And it's a nightmare."

Once someone is willing to get help, the next question is where, and how? Greco describes calling rehab and shelter facilities as a child, as a homeless man and as a clinical psychologist to find a client or friend a bed, only to find that facilities were full or not accepting new residents, or that no one at the center seemed to have an idea of whether they had a place to stay.

Later, he encountered the same problem from the other end of the phone line when he was working at those same facilities.

"I remember getting calls, late at night," Greco says. "It was a mom on the other end of the phone wanting to know whether I have space for their son or daughter. And I didn't even know what our census was."

Had he known the headcount, he would have known how many available beds there were.


If Getting Shelter Were As Easy As Ordering an Uber

The idea for the app came when Greco, now a psychologist, found himself unable to get the same basic information he was seeking as a kid.

"I realized that it was just as difficult for a licensed clinical psychologist to get someone into treatment as it was for a seven year old."

Greco had pictured a simple app that would match the world of homeless needs to the world of resources available to them.

"I said, you know, there has to be an app for that," he says. "You can order a pizza at four o'clock in the morning, or a cheeseburger from Sonic and have it delivered from Pomona, but there's no tool to be able to find a bed for my friend."

Greco quickly realized that if he wanted to be able to offer immediate help, he needed more than a list of numbers; he needed accurate real-time data. Who had open beds right now, tailored to specific needs of individuals — with substance abuse problems, with mental health problems, with kids, with domestic abuse trauma, with medical needs?

He had a vision for the app, but he didn't have a background in tech or business. Luckily, as he searched for funding for the idea, he came across Michael Root, one of the early engineering pioneers at Riot Games, who quickly volunteered to be Get Help's CTO. The company registered as a public benefit corporation in 2019.

"I had no idea what I was getting into," Greco says.

Solving Problems for Homeless People

Greco says it usually takes between 6 and 7 approaches (sometimes more) before someone who's experiencing homelessness will accept help — and often the kind of help people on the street are looking for isn't what street teams have to offer.

"The first service that they often will accept isn't a bed," says Greco, "but they'll accept a place where they can go get a meal."

Greco says it's critical to seize those moments, where a person is willing to ask for some kind of help, if only to build trust.

"It's about meeting the person where they're at," Greco says. "And that's what I do as a therapist."

In other words, he says focus on building trust, and provide people what they need, rather than what you think they need. Not everyone is looking for a shelter bed.

"That's where I operate from and where Get Help operates from," he says.

The app tries to reflect this by listing a range of services both big and small from shelter and sober living beds to food pantries, showers, laundry, storage facilities and health care services. All those services are what social workers call a continuum of care that will eventually lead to stability, he says.

Solving the Problem for Shelters

Greco at the Weingart Center in Los Angeles' Skid Row.

On the other end of the spectrum, Greco realized that if he wanted to be able to solve family members' 4 a.m. emergencies, he'd have to work with the shelters to get the data that would be crucial to getting their loved ones fast help.

What he quickly found was that many of these shelters and sober living facilities were using outdated tools to keep track of who was in their facility.

"They were still managing their inventory — and still are — is literally using yellow pads, sometimes whiteboards, Excel documents and email exchanges."

They reached out to the Weingart Center, one of the first shelters in Skid Row that specializes in providing emergency housing for people with mental illness. By the estimate of its current CEO, the company houses about 600 people nightly, and provides counseling, employment and other other services to thousands more. All of that requires an incredible amount of record keeping.

"In order to really run an operation," says Weingart's CEO, Kevin Murray, "you've got to do intake, you've got to assign room, you've got to assign food cards."

In addition, you have to make sure you're collecting the information that health insurers and the federal government require, as well as making sure you're tracking the basic needs — linen and toothbrushes, for example — of the people you're serving.

"Almost every provider is inputting this practice information in, you know, at least two, maybe multiple systems."

Greco's team met with Weingart to develop a data management system that could help them track that information.

"They actually sat down with our people at all levels to find out what they needed, and what would be helpful to them," Murray says. "We both sort of opened up to each other about what we wanted to do. And so we were participants in developing the system."

The result, Greco says, saved Weingart time and money by cutting down the number of steps that shelter staff had to take to do intake and reducing the number of data entry mistakes they made.

"Those errors result in billing errors," and those billing errors and mistakes can result in a place like The Weingart Center losing millions a year in funding opportunities.

It also made the information on how many beds the center had at any given time easily accessible, so that Get Help's app could make them available to service providers on the streets looking to get people housed.

"it's certainly, you know, added a lot of simplicity in our lives," Murray says.

From Pilot Test to a Citywide Crisis

An estimated 82,955 people fell into homelessness during 2019 in L.A County, and an estimated 52,689 people found the way out of homelessness in that time, according to the county's most recent data.Photo courtesy of Get Help

In late 2019, Get Help worked out a pilot program with a small faction of LAPD officers who patrol Skid Row and other areas to assist with routine clean ups of homeless encampments.

The officers in LAPD's Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement (HOPE) team downloaded the Get Help app and used it to direct the homeless folks they encountered to services in the area.

"The response was overwhelmingly positive," Greco says, adding that some officers reported it had changed the dynamic between some of their patrol and homeless in the area. Officers had real-time information they could offer to homeless folks, and their role went beyond enforcement to being able to offer assistance.

After six months, the plan was to expand the app's use in the city, when an even larger crisis hit.

"We had just got through a successful pilot with L.A. (city) and we're talking about expanding it, we were doing work on expanding to a different additional shelters, (and) we were starting conversations with L.A. County," Greco says, "And COVID-19 hit."

The city settled on an emergency plan to house vulnerable homeless people in recreation centers and other city facilities that had closed due to the pandemic.

Jimmy Kim oversees emergency operations for Los Angeles's recreation and parks department. He was tasked with creating the shelters, developing a system for keeping track of its inhabitants, and keeping them safe.

"The systems that we're using are so archaic," Kim says. "You know that saying, 'time is money', right?"

At first the city relied on regular manual headcounts, pen and paper and Google docs to keep a tally of those staying at its sites. It quickly found that process was inefficient.

"And so we came across (the app) in the mayor's office," says Kim. "They actually introduced us to the folks over at Get Help as part of a pilot program."

The app allowed them to streamline the process, and provided the mayor's office with real time information on the number and location of beds occupied.

"The quicker we could get them (registered), the quicker we could get people in," Kim says. "And then the less time they have to spend on doing registration, the more time they could spend on doing more important things."

The system proved a success, allowing Kim to keep track of registrations and discharges at the 24 shelters the agency oversaw, and allowing his staff of around 94 employees access to real-time data on who was where.

"I actually want to take that and use it for our normal shelters as well because it'll help us streamline that process and get real time usable data," Kim says. "You know, literally at the tip of your fingertips."

The department is now thinking about configuring the app to do contract tracing for shelter residents who come down with COVID-19, and it's thinking about expanding beyond the homeless emergency function, to other emergencies that require rapid sheltering — such as wildfires and earthquakes.

"Now, we're having those conversations," says Kim, "because I think it will help us streamline and get data a lot quicker… And if you have real-time data, you can make better decisions that way."

Meanwhile, Get Help is available to individuals, organizations and outreach workers in Apple's App Store and Google Play. His team is working with several large local shelters and sober living facilities and the county to expand the data available in Get Help's app that can be used by families, street teams and concerned residents looking for immediate help.

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‘House of the Dragon’ Visual Effects Artists Reveal Drogon and Seasmoke Are Indeed Cut From the Same Cloth

Andria Moore

Andria is the Social and Engagement Editor for dot.LA. She previously covered internet trends and pop culture for BuzzFeed, and has written for Insider, The Washington Post and the Motion Picture Association. She obtained her bachelor's in journalism from Auburn University and an M.S. in digital audience strategy from Arizona State University. In her free time, Andria can be found roaming LA's incredible food scene or lounging at the beach.

Caraxes dragon
HBO Max

Last night, House of the Dragon took home the award for best TV drama at the Golden Globes. With a budget of around $20 million per episode, the widely popular HBO series was a huge accomplishment on the part of the cast, crew, and of course…the VFX team tasked with bringing the dragons to life.

To do so, requires modeling the dragons after already existing animals. For example, in episode two of the HBO series, the audience is first introduced to Daemon’s (Matt Smith) maroon dragon Caraxes. The beast appears on screen with piercing eyes and snake-like movements that immediately establish its cunning character.

HBO Max

According to Mike Bell, visual effects supervisor at Moving Picture Company (MPC) Caraxes was largely based on the awkwardness of “a greyhound [dog] laying down or sitting.”

The thinking there, according to Bell, was that Caraxes isn’t meant to be lying down. “Caraxes is supposed to be flying,” said Bell. “Which is why he has that kind of almost snake-like animation.”

But for visual effects artists, the process of taking the dragon from conception to the screen is easier said than done. Unlike its predecessor which only had three, House of the Dragon had 10 dragons shown on screen just in Season 1. The construction of each alone can take three to four months, according to lead VFX Supervisor Angus Bickerton.

“For the first couple of months, we were just designing the dragons basically,” he said. “So we were collating lots of real world references, and Miguel [Sapochnik] and Ryan [Condal] were very keen to follow George R.R. Martin's belief that the dragons should all be quite distinctive, and more colorful than they were before, and have quite definitive characters.”

One of the most complicated sequences for the VFX team was also one of the most visually stunning for viewers: Vhagar and Arrax’s fight scene at the end of the season finale. Bickerton said before any production or filming takes place, the team spends a few days on set just scoping out and marking the scene.

HBO Max

“We had to kind of work out the flight path,” Bickerton explained. “We knew that they were arriving and leaving Storms End. And we found a location in Iceland…so we used that as our design, and then we plotted out what the chase would be.”

The VFX team then used virtual production software, Cyclops, created by visualization studio Third Floor, to map out a rough draft of what the scene would look like. Cyclops uses augmented reality and game engine tech to overlay CGI assets over live video in real time. Basically, Cyclops displays a quick rendering of what a dragon or building would look like in a scene, so the cast and crew know their marks and can visualize the layout.

“That allows [Director] Greg [Yaitanes] and his DOP, Pepe Avila del Pino, to come in and use the iPad to explore and find shots rather than, you know, an animator sitting at a desk.”

Lux Machina, a visual technology studio headquartered in Los Angeles, worked to stage many of the sequences on set before and during filming.

“[Engine operators] are doing a lot of things like recording and capturing the data that we're shooting on set,” explained Julia Lou, engine technical director and virtual production supervisor for Lux Machina. “So recording things like where the camera was, and any lens metadata, and taking snapshots of what the settings were and stuff like that.”

After staging is complete, Lou works in real time with the VFX team to operate the visual effect assets that take place in real time during filming.

Once the scenes are staged and mapped out, on-set visual effects supervisor Ed Hawkins is responsible for ensuring that filming aligns with the VFX team’s request. Lighting cues and camera angles have to be “pretty meticulously planned out,” according to Hawkins, so that it matches what the VFX team will create in post-production. And two dragons with two riders for a fight scene like the finale means two separate shoots.

“That was one of the more complicated sequences,” Hawkins said. To create it, all the actions of the dragons and the camera movements were pre-planned using a revolutionary form of VFX technology that offers a major upgrade to the traditional green screen. Rather than placing the actors in front of a green screen and building out the special effects in post-production, the team uses huge LED panels that surround a physical set that display whatever background image is required. The “volume,” as the technology is referred to, can also respond to camera movements.

“Also in that particular setup (the finale), it was quite challenging because we had a lot of rain and wind and smoke, which you wouldn't normally put into a volume, because it's a big, expensive computer screen,” Hawkins explained.

That said, even with all this state of the art technology, creating 10 dragons with distinct features and unique personalities is no easy task. In fact, Bickerton confesses that the team did reuse one dragon from the old series: Drogon, Queen Daenerys’s most famous dragon in Game of Thrones.

“When I joined, I was handed an old fashioned, big hard drive with about eight terabytes of accumulated assets and data from ‘Game of Thrones,’” says Bickerton. “We tried to glean as much as we could from those assets. And one of the key assets, of course, was Drogon himself.”

One thing Bell said he’d like to work on if he comes back for Season 2, is continuing to build the dragons in more detail and hone in more on their personalities and corresponding movements.

“I'd like to see how Caraxes’s character develops because he’s such an incredibly unique dragon, different from everyone else,” he said.

With the rapid improvement in VFX technology, it’s possible fans will see even more of the dragons in future seasons. Having worked as the lead on the first and last two Harry Potter movies, Hawkins said those films are an excellent example of the evolution of visual effect technology.

“If you look at those sequences of films, you can almost see the whole arc of the way the industry has changed,” Hawkins explained. “Because, you know, the first film was shot on film, there was a lot of models and practical effects. But as it went through the sequence of builds, Hogwarts became a digital asset. It's literally the whole arc of going from the beginnings of digital effects to where we are now.”

This Emergency Alert Nonprofit Saw Over 75,000 Incident Reports During the SoCal Storm

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

This Emergency Alert Nonprofit Saw Over 75,000 Incident Reports During the SoCal Storm
Evan Xie

The ruthless storm that’s pitched Southern California into a torrential downpour this week is also putting Los Angeles’ emergency alert systems to the test.

While the National Weather Service for Los Angeles’ flash flood warning isn’t currently in effect, at least two more storm systems are expected to touch down later this week.

And the more it rains, the more evident it becomes that Los Angeles lacks a cohesive central alert system for the City of LA that can warn residents in real time if they need to evacuate or relocate.

Enter the Los Angeles Incident Tracker, a nonprofit that launched this June with the goal of sending residents real-time alerts about weather-related incidents at their address. Doing business as LAIT911, the desktop and mobile app is a free service that collects data from several raw 911 feeds, including LA Fire, the LA County Fire Department and California Highway Patrol to provide a digital fire blotter.

This past week, the demand for information during the storm skyrocketed, with over 75,000 incident reports viewed by nearly 10,000 people since the storm began less than a week ago, according to LAIT911 operations director and founder Jonathan Martin. Martin said 50% of its user registration in the past week came from Jan. 9 alone, when the LA Department of Public Works’ headquarters Downtown recorded nearly six inches of rainfall.

The incidents are automatically added to LAIT911’s app dashboard. Once data is received the individual incidents are verified (usually by at least 2-3 freelance volunteers who are online at any given time monitoring local alerts). LAIT911 copies live dispatch information, and all following real-time alerts, into its app, and adds relevant safety information from both its own databases and third parties. The app also rates how severe each incident is to determine whether or not to send out alerts.

And though there’s no shortage of apps designed to track earthquakes, or wildfires, there’s only a handful of disparate systems that residents can use for emergency weather alerts.

“The [current citywide] alerting system right now is antiquated [so] there's not much public insight into what's going on in the city,” said Martin. “Sometimes there's no rhyme or reason why one incident will get an alert and one won't, and unless you're actively monitoring it, you really won't notice if it's relevant for you.” Which is why Martin wants to focus a bit more on the geo-targeted alerts rather than the kind sent out by the city that affects everyone.

That said, Martin is working on a partnership with the County Assessor’s Office to integrate some of their data to show users not just where a building incident occurred, but what kind of structure it is. In addition, Martin is trying to partner with the City’s Emergency Management Department, which puts out alerts for only major disasters.

One of those people was dot.LA senior editor Drew Grant, who said she found the “moment by moment updates” helpful after discovering the app this week, and noted that the LAIT911 interface was easier to make sense of than intel from a typical police scanner.

Right now the web app, which is into Google Maps’ API, is free to use on computers. Martin said he’s working on developing its own map feature that it can improve on as needed.

It’s easy to set up too. You just plug in your mobile phone number and address and LAIT911 will send alerts in your area straight to your device.

For people who want extra capabilities there is a subscription option in addition to the free web app. Pricing for the subscription ranges from $10-$17 per month, and it gives users access to LAIT911’s mobile app, advanced incident searching and instant notifications via Slack.

The free version of LAIT911 is, however, more than comprehensive. 90% of the information comes from raw 911 dispatch feeds, while about 10% is provided by a team of 10 volunteer incident reporting analysts, who review the calls and verify their legitimacy.

In case of power outages, there is also a backup. Martin said LAIT911 uses a data center run by Amazon Web Services in Northern California, which has so far been “incredibly resilient.” But, if that center were to go dark, it would take “maybe 30 minutes max” to transfer to another data center and get back online, he said.

“The real reason I made LAIT911 was just for my own nerdiness to analyze the data and how fires work and try to predict wildfires,” Martin added. Besides extreme weather, one of LAIT911’s focuses is on safety incidents surrounding the LA Metro.

So who are LAIT911’s competitors? Martin considers emergency alert app Citizen his primary rival. But he said, “I can confidently say that we don’t have any competitors that have the same amount of data.”

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