Pathways Connects Atlanta's Homeless, Poor to Services

Bill Matson has thought about homeless people for a long time, first as an operations manager for the Salvation Army and now as executive director of Pathways Community Network Inc., an Atlanta social services umbrella organization.

Three-and-a-half years ago Matson decided there should be a way to share data among social service agencies that serve the homeless and the working poor. He wasn't the only one. In and around Atlanta, social service managers realized they needed a system to keep track of the people who receive services from multiple agencies. "Homeless funders were asking for more than just numbers," Matson said. "They wanted qualitative data that showed we were making a difference in people's lives."

Thus, Pathways was born, an independent nonprofit organization to simplify data sharing among 28 social service agencies, three local governments and the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta.

Pathways embarked on its journey at a time when technology could cooperate. The project needed a system that could provide secure access to a high volume of data over a wide geographic area. Before 1997, that meant using a client/server application, a costly and complicated option for Pathways, especially because some of the participating agencies didn't even have computers.

But because Internet security issues were beginning to be resolved, Pathways felt it could consider an intranet solution. "E-trade was just emerging, and banks and state and local governments were starting to go online," Matson said. "Our agencies said, 'Why don't we step out ahead and bring e-commerce into this?' "

With the help of Sage Software Inc., a local consulting firm, Pathways developed an intranet-based system that debuted in April. The system enables agencies to track clients and assess their social service needs. Rather than having each agency create and maintain separate files on clients, Pathways maintains a single file on each person, listing demographic information as well as what services that person has received.

The Pathways system was designed to allow clients to pick and choose the functions they needed. "Agencies use different parts that are helpful to them," Matson said. An agency that provides financial assistance needs income and budgeting data about a client, for example, while an agency that helps with addiction problems needs medical and case-history information. Basic data, such as birth dates and Social Security numbers, are used by nearly all the agencies.

"It's so much easier to access the information we need to help people," said Dave Cooper, a senior social worker with Travelers Aid of Metropolitan Atlanta, an agency that assists stranded travelers and low-income newcomers to the area. People only have to provide intake information one time to receive services from several agencies, Cooper said. "And on return visits, we just press a couple of keys and pull up their case," he said, which is a far cry from the rooms full of paper dating to 1935 that the agency previously maintained.

In addition, the Pathways system helps Travelers Aid make more appropriate referrals when further support is needed. Rather than calling around haphazardly to find additional services for clients, Travelers Aid workers simply log onto United Way's World Wide Web-based database, Cooper said.

In fact, one side benefit of the Pathways project is that it has brought the Internet to many agencies that had no online capabilities. "This is their first experience with the Internet," Matson said. "Case workers are discovering e-mail and databases that are on the Web. It's a nice experience for them."

With personal data being captured online rather than stuffed in a file folder, confidentiality was of the utmost importance to Pathways. A client signs a consent form whenever a case worker needs to access the client's file. Pathways also provides layers of internal security so that only general information can be shared throughout the system.

For example, a birth date is accessible as a shared piece of data within the system, Cooper said, but case notes that he makes to someone's file about a sensitive subject remain internal to Travelers Aid.

Still, Pathways must convince its clients that the system is secure. In designing the system, Pathways employees and volunteers met and talked with 140 homeless and working poor constituents, according to Matson. About 96 percent said they felt social services would be more effective when computerized and networked, and 89 said they'd prefer to fill out a single intake form.

Still, there is a difference between agreeing to something in principle and seeing it spelled out in a document awaiting a signature of consent. "You get a whole gamut of reactions," Cooper said. "Some people won't sign anything, ever, but most people realize this is the society we live in today. Most people realize we are trying to protect them as much as possible."

In extreme-and very rare-cases, social workers can keep someone out of the system altogether. "If someone in law enforcement is battering a woman and she comes to us, we're not going to put her in the system, but we provide the service anyway," Cooper said. "We don't want [Pathways] to prevent people from getting service."

The Pathways system was built using SilverStream Application Server, a Web-development tool from SilverStream Software Inc. that supports Java applications or, in the case of Pathways, less-demanding HTML. Designers worked hard to ensure that the system can run on donated and reconditioned PCs over a shared 56 kilobits/sec connection rather than on more expensive ISDN or DSL lines. "Because we're an HTML-based application, it's not very bandwidth-intensive, and we can run on any up-to-date Web browser," Matson said.

Technical decisions are made by a steering committee, which is made up six to 10 volunteers from participating organizations.

"Quite a number of us have rather superlative technical backgrounds. We have a lot of people who worked in corporate America and now want to do something more human," said J.Ed. Marston, the committee chairman and assistant director of the Metro Atlanta Furniture Bank, a nonprofit agency that collects used furniture and provides it to formerly homeless people moving into permanent housing.

The committee is particularly interested in the human/computer interface, Marston said. During the design phase of the project, the technical committee was charged with finding ways to translate the general committee's needs and requirements into logical, effective technology. "We looked at real, live human beings and all the dynamics of their many relationships and said, now, how do we translate that into a database?" Marston said.

Now that Pathways is up and running, the committee is working on fixing bugs, deciding which features to add to a second version and discussing ways to ensure that workers are using the technology to its fullest potential.

Pathways began as a three-year demonstration project that cost $900,000 for research and development and startup, with initial grants coming from Fulton County, Ga., the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta and the Whitehead Foundation, among others.

On average, Pathways costs about $225,000 a year to run, but the steering committee is researching ways to have it become self-sufficient. One proposal would collect a half a percent of the program budget from participating agencies. Another plan calls for bringing more agencies into the system. "We've discovered that this doesn't require a lot of tech support. It's not problematic to run," Matson said.

Other than server maintenance and continuing design improvements, it's a system that's paid for. "So we can offer it to more and more agencies without having to add scores of staff," he said. l

-- Tracy Mayor is a Beverly, Mass.-based free-lance writer specializing in information technology.

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Find It Online

Pathways Community Network Inc.

www.pathways-ga.net

Sage Software Inc.

www.sagesoft.com

SilverStream Software Inc.

www.silverstream.com

United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta

www.unitedwayatl.org

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