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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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It’s less than 24 hours before the big event at the Amway Arena, but despite the task at hand, the executive director of the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida, Cathy Jackson, takes an hour out of her day to join her co-worker, Joel Remigio, to speak with the Weekly about HMIS. Surprisingly, she says that no media outlets have inquired about the database, which is managed by Remigio.

“We’ve been waiting for someone to ask this arcane question for years,” Jackson says.

Their organization is the federally recognized “continuum of care” for Central Florida. As the name suggests, it strives to bridge the gaps between local homeless agencies, coordinating their efforts to improve the overall service to the economically disadvantaged in the area. The federal recognition means it’s the middleman between HUD and local agencies: money flows in one direction, and data flows in the other. HMIS was designed, in part, to make that process more efficient.

“It is the essential tool in managing an effective continuum of care,” Jackson says.

Yet it’s not a new tool by any measure. In October 2000 Congress called for the creation of a “management information system” for the “purposes of collecting unduplicated counts of homeless people and analyzing patterns of use of assistance.” That responsibility fell upon HUD, which manages many federal homeless-assistance programs and doles out more than a billion and a half dollars per year to homeless agencies nationwide.

The following year, HUD responded with a proposal, which it refined in 2004. The continuums of care would maintain one electronic database for all the agencies within their jurisdictions. Local agencies, after installing HMIS – provided by a variety of private software companies adhering to certain federal standards – would be required to collect 14 “universal data elements” about their clients, ranging from basics like name, race and Social Security number to more particular information like the ZIP code for an individual’s last permanent address. If an agency failed to get one of the data elements, another agency could add this information, given that a person has one unduplicated record within that community. Among other things, this would provide a clear path for a more accurate count of the homeless.

“If you [as a care provider] can see the number of chronically homeless individuals, then you can begin to design a response to confront the problem,” says HUD spokesman Brian Sullivan.

For a surprisingly long time, counting the homeless depended on crude and inaccurate methods. Before HMIS, the sole method used was “point-in-time” counts: On one designated night, armies of volunteers across the country fan out into the streets, call all the shelters, put the numbers together and send them to HUD. But that method of taking “snapshots” once a year (or every other year) doesn’t distinguish between the chronically homeless and those who are just in a temporary tough spot. According to HUD, the chronically homeless are about 15 percent of the people on the street at any given time, but they utilize 50 percent of homeless services, financially speaking.

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