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On the grid

Can a massive database of personal information help the homeless without violating their privacy?

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There’s no such thing as a good day to be homeless. But for those living on the streets of Orlando last month, there were certainly worse days than Dec. 10, when the old Amway Arena hosted a fair offering a plethora of services addressing every ache, pain and trauma of the homeless experience.

At the arena that day, one could receive or arrange: a complete physical exam, a haircut from students of the Paul Mitchell school, an HIV test, a gift bag of toiletries (replete with towel and underwear), rent assistance, a birth certificate, an ID card, legal counsel, food stamps, mental health and drug abuse counseling and even a cell phone. Those with dogs could drop them off with a pet-sitter; those with bicycles could leave them with an attendant. Free food included hot dogs, hamburgers, potato chips and cookies. A wall of Gatorade ensured that no one had to drink water if they didn’t want to. And it was all free. Well, sort of.

The organizers wanted something in return: information. Before getting the perks and services, participants were asked to fill out a form from the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida requesting personal information like one’s veteran status, Social Security number and date of birth. The form also asked questions like “Have you ever been incarcerated?” and “Where did you stay last night?” The data in the 972 forms collected that day would later be input into a vast online database containing information on more than 86,000 people who have, at one point in the past eight years, utilized certain homeless services in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties. People answering those questions for the first time would have new records created in the database; for those already in the system, their files would be updated to note that they attended a “Fairs/Exhibitions” service 
on Dec. 10.

This database, called Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS), is not the outgrowth of an ambitious project by a local nonprofit, but rather, the slow fulfillment of a decade-old federal mandate to collect information on the homeless. Today, virtually all of the “communities” in the nation – whether it’s at the city, county or state level – have their own HMIS databases and are using them to enumerate and describe the homeless in their areas, as required by the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). But many communities – like the aforementioned three counties that comprise Central Florida – are also finding HMIS an excellent tool to make their own operations more efficient. The versatile database is now being customized by mental health clinics and courts, correctional facilities (and soon, the Veterans Administration), all of which are uploading their data to HUD as well. It’s a development that excites some, but worries others.

To its detractors, HMIS is an unnecessary hoarding of sensitive personal information that becomes more vulnerable as the database grows larger. But its proponents argue that it might be the most important tool in solving the nation’s problem of chronic homelessness. To them, the database needs more data to assist in providing better services. But to the vast majority of society, HMIS is just another forgettable acronym, unseen and unknown, existing as silently as the problem it was created to address.

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