Homeless system raises privacy concerns

HUD Homeless Management Information System Web site

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is pushing a system to gather data about the homeless population that may help providers concentrate services and funding.

But privacy advocates said the information to be collected is unnecessary and could lead to a national homeless tracking system.

The Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), implemented locally by homeless service providers, is intended to depict the breadth, condition and characteristics of homelessness. HUD provides the standards and funding to deploy the systems in communities, which would in turn provide HUD with aggregate data.

"One of the major obstacles we've encountered is the inability to accurately know the number of homeless individuals we are attempting to serve," said John Garrity, director of HUD's Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs. HMIS is critical for a successful homeless assistance effort, he said.

Local providers collect data including names, Social Security numbers and dates of birth. Depending on the kind of care needed, more information may be gathered.

The data, minus the identifying information, is then sent to HUD. "We get aggregate data," said one HUD spokesman, who declined to be identified. "It's not going to be a perfect count of the homeless. It's a count of service users."

Chris Hoofnagle, deputy counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the system goes beyond the congressional mandate for gathering data on homelessness.

"It's a tracking system," he said. "It's not just an enumeration. They take unique identifiers, link them to other personal information and track it over time."

HUD could take a census-style approach by choosing certain nights to do a comprehensive count, Hoofnagle said. This approach would accurately count the homeless. HUD is going beyond that to create a system that could become a national database to track the homeless, he said.

"There's a Trojan horse here," Hoofnagle said. "Under the guise of enumeration, they are laying the foundation for a national system."

There are also scant protections on who can view the data, opening the door for law enforcement agents to readily obtain the information, he said. This access could allow officials to use the data to rid an area of the homeless for an event, such as the Olympics, he said.

"All we have is a promise," Hoofnagle said. "I wouldn't trust that."

Dennis Culhane, a professor of social welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania and an original researcher of HMIS, said identifying information never reaches HUD and privacy concerns have been addressed. The personal data is necessary for the databases to merge, and information is protected, much like child welfare records are, he said.

"It's only for research and administration purposes," Cullhane said. "It's for the sharing of personal information. It can only be shared under strict agreements."

The Web-based systems are created by various vendors for the providers. HUD, which also provides funding, has set the standards, published in the Federal Register in July, for the minimum requirements for providers. Communities have been asked to have the HMIS by October 2004, but Culhane said it may take until late 2005.

June Shapiro, director of human services for Spokane, Wash., has also been using the system since 1995 for case management.

"From that information, we are able to complete a variety of funding forms and use it for planning purposes," Shapiro said.

One challenge to implementing such a system is the reluctance of providers to gather personal data because of confidentiality reasons and the effort required by employees. "You have an enormous suspicion by providers getting involved with this kind of system," the HUD spokesman said.

Shapiro said the Spokane region chose not to include Social Security numbers and only collects a person's first and last initial, date of birth and gender. Many clients often don't know their Social Security numbers, she said, making it a hard piece of information to collect. Spokane officials will only include Social Security numbers if HUD mandates it, she said.

"We think that's good because it gives people that confidentiality," Shapiro said.

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By the numbers

The homeless

An analysis of a 1996 federal survey by the Census Bureau, which was published in 2000 by the Urban Institute, provides the closest estimation of the numbers and characteristics of homeless people.

* An estimated 842,000 adults and children were homeless during an average week in February 1996. In an average week in October 1996, an estimated 444,000 people were homeless.

* Between 2.3 to 3.5 million people are estimated to experience homelessness at least once during a year, based on February and October 1996 estimates. Estimates for children range from 900,000 to 1.35 million.

* 23 percent of homeless clients are veterans.

* 31 percent of service users reported at least one alcohol, drug or mental health problem during the past month, 36 percent did so for the past year and 56 percent did so during the course of their life.

Source: The Urban Institute

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