With Berkeley as little as a month away from rolling out a state-of-the-art online system to track homeless residents, some local homeless service providers are wondering if the new technology will catapult them into the 21st century or send them back to 1984.
Dubbed the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), the program, mandated in a 2001 congressional appropriations bill, requires any jurisdiction that receives federal homeless dollars to implement a computerized tracking system approved by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Homeless clients will be asked to provide basic information including their social security numbers to help authorities monitor use of various service providers. Clients will have the right to withhold their information and still receive services. HUD is also forbidden from distributing client information beyond local service providers.
The program’s mission is to get sound data on the number of homeless nationwide, analyze patterns of use and study the effectiveness of homeless care providers. The information will be used to compile the first congressionally-mandated Annual Homeless Assessment Report, due out next year.
HUD has selected Berkeley as one of 80 sample jurisdictions to be included in the report. The Women’s Daytime Drop-In Center, the Berkeley Food and Housing Project and Building Opportunities for Self Sufficiency (BOSS) have been selected as the first service providers to operate the system.
But with the city scheduled to begin the program as early as the end of the month and no later than February, not everyone is fully on board.
“There are a lot of mixed emotions about this,” said Jane Micallef, the city’s homeless policy coordinator.
On the plus side, Micallef said, when the system is fully implemented the city would better understand the nature and extent of homelessness. By addressing gaps in services, agencies could improve case management coordination, access to data, and report generation capabilities, she said.
Then there is the privacy issue.
Should homeless clients chose to provide personal data, they will get a second option either to allow their data to be shared among local providers, so they won’t need to register again at other agencies, or refuse to share their data altogether.
All personal information collected in Alameda County will be stored on a server in Shreveport, LA, home of the county’s HUD-approved information technology provider, Bowman Internet Solutions.
The fear, said Robert Barrer, deputy director of BOSS, is what might happen down the road.
“People say ‘What if the congressional mandates change and they have this information at their fingertips?;” he said.
A cautionary tale comes from San Francisco, which, armed with a HUD grant, initiated its own tracking system last year that, unlike Berkeley’s, is mandatory for homeless clients and requires them to submit to a fingerprint scan.
The system is supposed to be full-proof when it comes to protecting client identities, but when Chance Martin, editor of San Francisco’s Street Sheet, made a public records request of the San Francisco Department of Human Services and Metsys Monitoring, the city’s information technology provider, he couldn’t believe what he saw.
“We got reams of papers full of bug reports that had confidential client information all over them,” Martin said. “It was clear that the people running the program didn’t know the meaning of confidentiality.”
HUD didn’t earmark money to pay for the tracking system, and how much it will cost Berkeley and local homeless service providers remains unclear. The Alameda County Continuum of Care has submitted a grant proposal to HUD that would pay for half of the implementation costs for every effected jurisdiction in the county, Barrer said.
Since Berkeley has to get its system online early, he said, the city is providing funds to BOSS and other service providers to help offset the cost. BOSS, which is one of the largest service providers in the county, wouldn’t have much trouble implementing the new system, Barrer said, but smaller agencies with less technological infrastructure could take a big hit.
“Unfunded mandates are never cheap,” he said.