New Tracking System Diverts Money from Housing

A commentary by Brian Davis about the current effort to develop a Homeless Management Information System in the United States.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors reports homelessness in America’s cities has steadily increased for most of the last two decades. Very few American cities have developed appropriate or adequate housing to suit the diverse needs of America’s growing homeless population. In fact, since 1979 the amount of federal funds dedicated yearly to housing low-income families has plummeted by $14 billion. This extreme lack of resources has led most communities to make decisions that force their entire homeless population into well established programs carrying the unspoken message to conform or suffer on the streets.

 The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the federal that has yet to meaningfully address America’s housing crisis, has now demanded that all municipalities and states must devote their dwindling human services or housing resources on a computer tracking system for all homeless people. While HUD’s "Homeless Management Information System" might have a neutral ring to it, it is rife with potentially sinister applications. This new computer tracking system permits administrators to track homeless people as they access services or can even act as a gatekeeper to prevent people with disabilities or other "problems" from accessing life sustaining programs.

In an effort to meet a Congressional mandate for an unduplicated national homeless count, HUD has enacted rules requiring every jurisdiction receiving federal homeless assistance dollars must construct a computer tracking system by 2004 or risk losing those federal dollars. Communities rightfully fearing legal exposure or the potential violations of privacy risk losing federal funding for non-compliance.

 Across the United States, advocates are voicing serious concerns that this counting method adopted by HUD as flawed, and fear it will actually increase the number of Americans who will spend long periods of their lives without housing. Today, many Americans harbor understandably adverse feelings about furnishing personal information for a government database, regardless of their housing status. No matter what security protocols such a database might feature, the reality is that many will opt out of the system by not seeking help.

 Civil libertarians are not alone in their concerns that computerized tracking systems would potentially violate the privacy rights of homeless people. Providers of emergency services to domestic violence survivors fear that such a computer system could make it easier for abusers to stalk their victims. Health care and mental health professionals worry about the potential for violations of their client’s confidentiality. This is not just an abstract academic debate. San Francisco along with many other American cities are poised to fingerprint, photograph and widely share the life history of a homeless individual’s life within the human service network. And we are all well aware that there are few guarantees with data privacy in an age of hackers and data pirates.

 Meanwhile, rural communities of Appalachia, the plains of Iowa, and the Pacific Northwest do not have the capacity or the numbers to justify devoting the amount of resources that these computerized tracking systems require. Current HUD allocations for construction of these tracking networks are so small that many communities will be forced to use local resources to implement this federal mandate. It is sadly ironic that a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Executive Branch would force an "unfunded mandate" on communities, considering it was the Republicans who coined the term.

 HUD has collected years of data and analytical research on hand regarding the extent of our national housing crisis. Government and Elected officials could easily fund a study in a few representative cities and combine those findings with the existing data to come to an academically-based estimate of our national homeless population. This would certainly lead to a more accurate count than an unproven system that relying on homeless people willing participation with a select group of services to achieve an unduplicated count.

 It might be easier to support a data tracking system if it increased housing and health care funding for homeless and low income families. The two previous Presidential administrations developed very conservative estimates of homeless Americans, but despite these numbers we saw dramatic decreases in affordable housing and alarming increases in the numbers of uninsured people. Homeless people might find themselves more willing to reveal their personal information if it seen as an avenue to stable decent housing, but the current federal mandate does not guarantee housing to anyone. Data collection schemes such as this computer tracking system serve no one as well as politicians, social workers, and grant writers who will use the information to justify requests for the small federal funding pool dedicated to actually ending homelessness. It will make bureaucrat’s job easier, while making services harder for homeless people to access.

Instead of trying to manage this housing crisis, isn’t it about time to treat our national disgrace of homelessness as an emergency that demands immediate attention? A strong wind hits a suburban Ohio town or some other natural disaster strikes in the United States, the federal government responds with a surge of federal assistance. New York City was the recipient of an unprecedented amount of emergency finances and resources in the wake of the World Trade Center attack. In fact, charitable organizations clamored to help the survivors of that disaster before we had determined the number of people who died.

We should adopt this approach to the national embarrassment we have labeled homelessnes. Let us bring America home and then develop a management information system to prevent a future crisis.

Published in the Homeless Grapevine Street Newspaper Cleveland Ohio July 2002 Issue 55