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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 a microcosm of the bigger challenge that lies ahead for the Homeless Services Network: getting organizations with “natural affinities” to work together. During the first quarter of this year, Jackson and Remigio plan to act as matchmakers, using the utility of HMIS as an icebreaker. “They all know each other, but to actually get them in a room and generate a 
better familiarity with each other will make them more willing to share information,” Remigio says.

Also soon to be on Remigio’s plate is a proposal by the Veterans Administration to copy homeless veterans’ data from VA databases into HMIS, which would help the Homeless Services Network and HUD get a more complete picture of homeless veterans in the area.

Remigio says this is part of HUD’s push to make HMIS the community’s “central resource on homeless data.” This leads to the prevailing argument for the growth of HMIS: As more agencies come into contact with the homeless and enter their information into the database, the more accurate and comprehensive the picture of homelessness in the region is. To Remigio and Jackson, expansion of the database is not only good, but necessary.

“If you look at it from a 30,000-foot level, the ideal environment would be to have any church, any private foundation or any nonprofit who is serving homeless people entering information into HMIS, and ultimately, being able to manage client resources electronically,” Jackson says. “That’s the ideal that we’re trying to meet.”

It’s a goal that’s either noble or unsettling, depending on who’s listening. But wherever one stands, it’s hard to disagree with Sullivan.

“The applications of this data,” he says, 
“are infinite.”

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