Social services hit privacy snag

Federal Register final notice on Homeless Management Information Systems

Department of Housing and Urban Development officials have amended standards for collecting data about the nation's homeless population after social activists and privacy advocates complained that the information could be used to create a national system for tracking homeless people.

HUD officials are developing a national database they say will help improve services to all homeless people including those with mental illness. But advocates for the homeless fear that the information will be used to deny access to services to those who appear in the database as having been denied services at other shelters.

Critics also say that collecting extensive histories from homeless people is an intrusion into their lives.

Government officials' response to those concerns appears in a final notice published July 30 in the Federal Register, which defines stronger data security standards. The amended standards require local authorities to enforce privacy policies for congressionally mandated data-collection efforts.

Last year, HUD officials provided $23 million for 142 local data-collection projects. HUD officials use the name Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) to describe local and national efforts to collect and analyze information about homeless people.

Social welfare experts say that collecting information about homelessness will result in better local planning and help reduce the problem. "Without information, we are driving in the dark," said Dennis Culhane, a professor of social welfare policy at the University of Pennsylvania, whose research has involved HMIS. "Localities need good information to make good public policy."

HUD officials have tried to dispel privacy fears by insisting that they are interested only in aggregate data at the national level. They also have said they have no intention of setting up a national database to track homeless people. Law enforcement officials must submit written requests to get information from HMIS databases.

Although privacy advocates said the latest changes are welcome, they remain critical of HUD officials' request for social service agencies to collect Social Security numbers from homeless people and for including domestic violence shelters in the databases.

"The inclusion of domestic violence shelters is problematic and so is the inclusion of the Social Security number," said Chris Hoofnagle, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties and privacy advocacy group.

In a worst-case scenario, privacy advocates say, an abuser who happens to be authorized to access an HMIS database could get information about a victim of domestic violence and track down and potentially harm that person.

HUD officials emphasize the importance of acquiring longitudinal data on the homeless population.

"If you were to ask for a reliable national, daily or annual count of the homeless, we could not authoritatively answer that question," said Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesman. Social Security numbers, he said, are useful for getting an accurate count of homeless people and helping them access resources.

Many communities already use information technology to collect data on homeless populations. Last year, 33 percent of about 400 localities that HUD officials surveyed reported they were gathering information on homeless people in their communities, while 61 percent said they were selecting software and hardware for a database. Another 5 percent said they were considering setting up a database. Only 1 percent had not considered doing so.

Homeless people's fear of providing information to authorities, however, remains high. Last year, according to Street Sheet, a San Francisco newspaper that reports on homelessness, 73 percent of 201 shelter users said they were opposed to a system designed by MetSYS Inc., which makes social services program management software that city officials use. Thirty percent said they would opt not to go to a shelter, risking citation and arrest, rather than submit to the city's biometric finger imaging.

Sternstein is a freelance writer in Potomac, Md.

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Why HUD wants data on the homeless"

Despite the fears of advocates for homeless people and the homeless people themselves, officials at the Department of Housing and

Urban Development say that a combination of local databases and aggregated data in a national database is needed to:

Bring the benefits of information technology to providers of services to homeless people.

Coordinate the efforts of local agencies that serve homeless people.

Collect and report aggregate information about the characteristics and needs of homeless people nationwide.

Source: Federal Register

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