Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Privacy for Homeless People 2

Public Comment Due to HUD February 7, 2012

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless is recommending those experiencing homelessness and local advocates to respond to the call for public comments with regard to the release of Homeless Management Information Systems requirements.  These rules are critical to the protection of privacy for homeless people, and could have a major impact on how the shelters are funded going forward.  We have an advocacy alert available to those interested in responding just send us an e-mail and we will pass that along to you [neoch (at) advocacy (dot) org.].

To respond go to:
Enter the Docket Number:  FR-5475-P-01
or the Title:  Homeless Management Information Systems Requirements.

If you do decide to respond, please send us a copy of your comments to our advocacy e-mail.  Here is the subject of our comments.

The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless has accepted the use of HMIS to improve the delivery of services to those experiencing homelessness, but we do not support the use of HMIS as a system to report the extent of homelessness to Congress.  We have seen that the statistics are often mistaken for a count of the total number of people homeless in a city or county.  No matter how many qualifiers are included in the national Annual Homeless Assessment Report, both elected officials and the media mismanage the data as a complete count of homelessness.  There is such wide disparity in how this data is collected that there is no way to compare among service provider and certainly between cities this case management data.  We believe that a voluntary case management system would be worthwhile to collect data, but a mandatory system that attempts to collect an unduplicated count is nearly impossible in such a fractured system.

In a period of tightening budgets and federal cuts, we believe that these resources could be redirected to basic human services or housing assistance instead of the administrative services of counting people. We see the value of one electronic case management system overseen by HUD used by every social service provider in a community.  If the eventual goal is to arrive at the number of homeless people in a city or state as stated by Congress, we believe that HUD would receive much better information by funding local experts to conduct a census in representative cities.  We believe that local universities or foundations in various size representative cities, suburbs, and rural jurisdictions could develop an accurate estimate of the number of homeless people and then they could use that data to extrapolate a national estimate of homelessness. 

Here are a few of the areas that we have concerns:
  1. It should be made clear that there is not a minimum participation rate by clients for the social service provider.  The user who is experiencing a housing emergency and refuses to enter data should not result in a penalty or an issue with the performance standards for the local social service provider. 
  2. We believe that the security standards should emphatically and unequivocally state that law enforcement agencies should not have access to personal identifying information contained within the HMIS data without a warrant signed by a member of the judicial branch of government.
  3. We believe that the requirement for every publicly funded homeless service provider contribute data to a central management system is an unfunded mandate from the federal government.  There should be dedicated resources separate from the Emergency Solutions Grant or Continuum funding to implement this project.
  4. We believe that there are a number of state privacy laws that make it difficult for local agencies to submit data under these proposed rules.  
  5. NEOCH does not believe that an HMIS Lead organization should also be a service provider.
  6. The security standards, local policies and procedures and grievance process should be posted on an easily accessible publicly available website.
  7. There are no protections for clients outlined in the regulations for improper usage or improper release of data especially privacy violations by an HMIS Lead organization.
  8. Since this data is being used by the public and Congress for planning and local decision making on the proper allocation of resources, there should be a way for advocates or the public to challenge the data’s accuracy.
If you have questions or need more detail feel free to contact us.  Even if you disagree with our comments, it is important to have the public weigh in on these rules.  These requirements are forcing every publicly funded shelter in America to require everyone entering to provide data and then that data is compiled in an annual report and delivered to Congress.  While I understand the importance of data, it just seems like we are surrendering to the reality that we will always have homeless people in the United States.  We are forced to construct this elaborate infrastructure to keep track of those people without housing, because homeless families are going to be with us for generations.  We are resigned to have detailed rules about the counting of homeless people, and we are going to need shelters for decades into the future.  I want some political will to end homelessness this year.  I want to not have to count people next year with all the vacant housing in the United States.  Maybe I am a dreamer, but writing down all these rules to count homeless people just seems like we are agreeing to sign on to a similar document presented to General Lee in the parlor of McLean House in April of 1865.  

Brian Davis
Community Organizer

Posts reflect the opinion of those who sign the entry.

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