Homeless Big Brother Tracking System Constructed

by Ivan Sheehan

     Big Brother is watching the nation’s homeless populations, but its gaze may be fixed with good intentions.

     In Fiscal Year 1999 Congress advised the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to collect data from a representative sample of existing Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) for the HUD Appropriation’s Act, part of the department’s Annual Homeless Assessment Report. By October 2001 HUD, with the insistence of Congress, established and published its goal to have all communities in the United States collecting and reporting data with HMIS.

     In Cuyahoga County the Office of Homeless Services directs HMIS development. The project utilizes an Internet-based data reporting system to assist homeless service organizations gather information about clients served, according to Homeless Services Program Officer, Carolyn Nabakowski.

     “Cuyahoga County has adopted the use of ServicePoint [from the for-profit corporation Bowman Internet Systems] as its HMIS software solution,” notes Nabakowski via facsimile. “It is being used with highly satisfactory results by dozens of states and cities around the country.”

      A group of representatives from the Local Continua of Care selected the software in 2002 following analysis of system needs and comparisons with other top-rated platforms. The Point program enables providers to connect with the system remotely via the Internet, and input data directly. In addition, shelters with existing systems may still utilize current management programs, and export that data to ServicePoint.

      “The goal of the HMIS project is to inform public policy about the extent and nature of homelessness in Cuyahoga County and eventually at the Federal Policy level,” says Nabakowski. And this goal is a feasible endeavor, according to David Jones, director of HMIS at 2100 Lakeside shelter.

      “Not only is it a possibility, we’re looking forward to it,” says Jones. “The largest obstacle to our shelter is that ServicePoint was designed for smaller providers with much less turnover. 2100 Lakeside by comparison has a much larger client base with tremendous turnover. The client to staff ratio puts a huge burden on staff.”

     2100 Lakeside Shelter welcomes approximately 1,300 individuals each month, and 550 each night, according to Jones. With only 22 fulltime staff spread over three shifts, accounting for all residents can be an extraordinary drain on the staff, whose focus is face-to-face care and guidance, adds Jones.

     Brian Davis, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, has worked with other advocates on the national level to oppose this data collection. “With all the problems in assuring the rights of homeless people when they enter a shelter, allowing government to collect very personal information, including social security numbers and place that informtion on a web- based system is risky at best.”

     According to the Fourth Annual Progress Report on HUD’s Strategy For Improving Homeless Data Collection, released by the department in March 2005, “most communities rely on HUD funding for a significant portion of their HMIS budgets.” The department’s Supportive Housing Program, a grant program, began supporting HMIS in 2004. The Continuum of Care Notice of Funding Availability (NOFA) process also awards funding for HMIS. Applicants for NOFA funding are measured on a point system that examines need and commitment to Continuum Care and appropriates funds accordingly. In 2004, $21.1 million in funding for HMIS projects were awarded among 444 Continuum of Care facilities.

     The federal funding, however, is not enough to alleviate the full financial burden at 2100 Lakeside Shelter, and many other area facilities, according to Jones.

     Part of the funding problem stems from a lack of full HMIS reporting in the County. The Office of Homeless Services reported 2,085 shelter beds as of January 2005. Yet County HMIS service provider reports account for 1,517 beds being used, about 73 percent of the total available. The data represents the number of beds used in year-round family and individual emergency shelter beds; and year-round family and individual temporary housing beds. NEOCH lists 2,033 shelter beds in Cuyahoga County or nearly 98% of the January count, which means all those who do not utilize shelters are lost in the count.

     The ServicePoint system reports to HUD, and is capable of generating the HUD Annual Progress Report, which is a reporting requirement that all agencies receiving HUD funds must submit on an annual basis, according to Nabakowski. As funding is partially based on HMIS reporting, and with a quarter of the area’s beds appearing unused, some providers fear HUD appropriations will diminish accordingly.

    In addition, there are significant costs for larger agencies not using ServicePoint as the primary reporting system. Instead facilities such as 2100 are forced to purchase or create in-house systems.

   “Furthermore they will have to purchase additional software that allows the agency to talk to the county server,” says Jones. “We’ve addressed the challenge by designing our own system around the unique needs of our shelter and clients.”

    The system at 2100 was designed to be as streamlined as possible for case managers. It collects data to give providers feedback on client outcomes for case review; offers data for clients so they may review their own progress; and it can collect data that serves the needs of care partners so they may in turn better address the needs of 2100’s clients, notes Jones. Ultimately, Jones hopes to introduce barcode ID cards thereby eliminating resource-intensive activities such as signing in 550 people every night.

   “For us it’s about tracking units of service. Examples would be beds utilized, clothing, care-kits or meals distributed, meetings attended, referrals made, etc,” says Jones. “I believe it’s about providing accurate data and insight on how well the clients and staff do their jobs collectively and where we can improve…it’s about providing feedback.”

    Davis counters that with all the theft of personal data at MasterCard, Bank of America, DSW, and CitiGroup, is it worth gaining some very inaccurate statistics by forcing people to give social security numbers that would be available to 25 local shelter staffs?

    Since July 2004, the number of Cleveland providers participating in HMIS increased by 50 percent from 9 to 18, and the participation rate rose to 75 percent in January 2005, according to Nabakowski.

   “We have a realistic goal in Cleveland of getting all the shelters to participate in HMIS,” says Nabakowski. “Currently, all the shelters who are required to participate in HMIS [those receiving McKinney-Veto Funds] are entering their information into the system. The Office of Homeless Services is in the process of offering the use of the system to non-HUD funded agencies.”

Copyright NEOCH, The Homeless Grapevine #71, July 2005. All Rights Reserved.