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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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Philip Toal, senior director of one of those programs, Anchor, calls HMIS a “godsend.” Before the database, he says, clients had to wait hours – sometimes days – to be provided any services. In the pre-HMIS era, a client would have to fill out a lengthy application, which would then be faxed to the seven other HOPWA agencies to ensure that the client was not “double dipping” on limited federal dollars or abandoning a plan already in progress with another program. Each of those agencies then had to check for that person’s name in their own files – which could have been misplaced or locked in a counselor’s office during a confidential session. Toal says the process sometimes took so long that some were literally left out in the cold. “It was possible that they were perfectly eligible, but we didn’t have the information we needed because of the antiquated system we were using,” he says. “Now, I can get you into a warm bed tonight.”

Sharing data through HMIS isn’t a privilege limited to just homeless agencies. This month, the Orange County Corrections Department will start feeding information on inmates who are 45 days from release and participating in re-entry programs into the Central Florida HMIS. A similar system already exists in Miami, where the 11th Judicial Circuit Criminal Mental Health Project uses HMIS to make sure that those diagnosed as mentally ill and finishing jail terms don’t get caught up in a vicious cycle of incarceration. “If we have a person getting out of jail today, we will make sure that they have a place to live and that they can get connected to treatment,” says project director Cindy Schwartz, who calls HMIS “very helpful.”

It should be noted that sharing homeless peoples’ data between agencies was never mentioned in the original Congressional mandate for the system, which only called for a one-way transaction of data with the federal government. Yet HUD had a grander vision for HMIS, and Congress went along with it. Today, HUD encourages agencies to think big – in fact, the Miami project received a “National Visionary Award” from HUD in 2006 for its inventive use of the system.

“If you’re trying to grapple with an area-wide problem, you need everybody at the table,” HUD’s Brian Sullivan explains.

But it’s this expansion of HMIS into new frontiers that most worries John Morris, general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology. He characterizes the database as entering “mission creep” – a term defined in the dictionary as “the gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization,” usually used in a negative context.

Morris says that as the database’s users increase, so does the risk of insider data leaks. That there hasn’t been a documented HMIS security breach doesn’t reassure him any. “Every data breach that we’ve had in this country was preceded by a big chunk of time when there wasn’t a data breach,” he says.

The “human factor” also worries Bowman Systems’ Johnson. Despite all the security measures in place, he says, he can’t stop a user from giving someone else their ID and password, nor from printing out a report and leaving it out for unauthorized eyes to see. “Technically, there are things in place to secure the data,” he says. “But there are other things we have no control over.”

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