Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Data Collection


Homeless Management Information System. One advantage of using an administrative database such as the HMIS is that information is being collected on an ongoing basis. Therefore, instead of collecting data through repeated waves of interviews, as is typically done in a survey effort, HMIS data can be collapsed into any time frame desired, such as annually, quarterly, or monthly. There is less flexibility in the extent of information available on each family, or family member, from the HMIS system, however. The universal data elements, listed earlier, are the only variables that will be available on everyone in every community implementing an HMIS. Although this is not a very extensive amount of information, even these data can be used to help address some of the major research questions:

  • The percentage of homeless families among the total homeless population in a community;
  • Basic descriptive information on homeless families, including the number of people in the household, age of the parent(s) and children, and whether more than one adult is part of the family; and
  • Information on the number/percentage of families that return to shelters over whatever time frame can be examined.

More detailed, program-specific data elements can also be collected as part of the HMIS. This information must be collected on everyone involved in various HUD-funded programs, including the Supportive Housing Program, Shelter Plus Care, and HOPWA. The CoCs are encouraged to collect this information on everyone tracked in the HMIS system but, since this is not mandated, the extent to which the information is available would need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. The availability of this more detailed information, also listed earlier, would make it possible to expand the descriptive information available on each family and to create more refined subgroups of families (e.g., families experiencing domestic violence or substance abuse). It would also be possible to examine the services that families received and explore the relationship between services and basic outcomes, such as length of time in the homeless system and whether the family unit, or individual family members, fall back into homelessness over time.

Finally, there are a handful of data elements that are not required for anyone in the HMIS system but that CoCs are encouraged to collect: employment, education, health, pregnancy, more detailed veteran's data, and information on children's education participation. If this level of information is available on most people in the HMIS systems examined, then it would be possible to examine even more closely the relationships among family characteristics, services received, and various types of outcomes, such as finding a job or keeping children enrolled in school.

Other Administrative Data. Another important feature of the HMIS system is that information is collected that can be linked with other databases. Individual CoCs, for example, have been able to link their HMIS records with databases from the following:

  • Parole/justice/jails;
  • Public assistance (TANF, general assistance, food stamps);
  • Public health;
  • Health services; and
  • Housing (public housing, Section 8 programs).

If these linkages could be established for CoCs involved in a national study, they would provide an opportunity to examine even more about each family. Public assistance records, for example, can help show how many families were receiving services before they became homeless, how many obtained services after becoming homeless, whether public assistance came before or after exiting the homeless system, and whether receipt of public assistance is related to whether a family falls back into the homeless system.

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