On the grid
Can a massive database of personal information help the homeless without violating their privacy?
Published: January 13, 2011
That distinction became important enough for the federal government to take notice in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, the loss of many single-resident housing units for individuals at risk of homelessness and cuts to social services combined to put more people than ever on the street. (Tellingly, it is difficult to find any numbers to describe the problem on a national level; still, there is a general consensus that urban homelessness increased starkly during this period.) In 1983, the first federal task force on homelessness was created, and in 1987, Congress passed the Homeless Assistance Act, which set aside federal money for homeless-assistance programs at the local level and gave birth to the continuums of care.
Yet at the turn of the century, the inability to count the homeless also made it difficult for Washington to measure the impact of those programs. Data on the homeless largely resided in the file cabinets of thousands of agencies; for every 365 days of homeless data collected by the agencies, there was only one day where the feds could take a peek. That’s where HMIS comes into play.
“The idea with HMIS is that over the course of a year, if you’re homeless, you’re more likely to touch the system,” Sullivan says. “For the first time, HMIS has allowed us to more fully appreciate the dynamic nature of homelessness in America.”
It’s been a slow climb for the database, but as HUD has drawn strings from coveted grants to HMIS usage, agencies have come along more quickly. Today, Central Florida has 32 different agencies and 179 individuals using the database. The information collected by the Homeless Services Network has real-world implications: by running the records on bed usage through a report in HMIS, for example, Remigio can judge that Central Florida’s emergency shelter and transitional housing bed coverage is “great,” while the number of permanent supportive-housing beds are “way low.”
Reports like these, Jackson says, help HUD allocate limited resources where they’re needed most. “People who are looking at the bucks – federal funding priorities – can quantitatively assess how many more beds we need,” she says.
Sullivan explains it in a larger context. “Data drives effective programming,” he says. “How would you solve a problem without fully understanding it?”
Anna Allen, a sprightly middle-aged woman, sits next to her fiance, Army veteran Joseph Long, at a picnic table at Lake Eola Park. They’re waiting for volunteers from the group Food Not Bombs to start serving the weekly free vegetarian dinners on this Wednesday evening, per their usual routine. The couple is homeless, but hasn’t heard of the database that their names may reside in. Allen, who says she was laid off from the Marriott Resort & Convention Center nine months ago, guesses it may be linked to a “no-hire list” she’s heard that the homeless are being put on. “I’ve heard that businesses can check who’s been to the Coalition [for the Homeless of Central Florida],” she says. The idea frustrates her fiance. “Losing everything we have is not a crime,” Long says.
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