Characteristics and Dynamics of Homeless Families with Children. Typologies and Knowledge Gaps the HMIS Could Inform


Using the HMIS universal data elements would help with resource allocation, as these would identify the size and composition of the population to enable resource matching.

Using the program-specific HMIS data elements would help provide data on the following:

  • Treatment matching-understand the services and housing needed by particular families to exit homelessness and
  • Resource allocation-understand the needs of the population to enable better resource matching.

An advantage of using HMIS data is that the information is already being collected in a number of communities around the country. One problem with the use of such administrative data, however, is that the only information available is that which is already being collected. Although HUD is encouraging CoCs to collect a wide range of information on everyone receiving homeless services, only a smaller set of items is required to be collected on every person. As a result, the knowledge gaps that an analysis of HMIS systems might address will depend upon the comprehensiveness of data collection in the specific HMIS systems examined.

The universal HMIS data elements required to be collected on everyone are as follows:

  • Identifying variables (e.g., name, Social Security number);
  • Personal identification number;
  • Household identification number;
  • Date of birth;
  • Ethnicity/race;
  • Gender;
  • Veteran's status;
  • Disability status (dichotomy);
  • Residence prior to program entry;
  • ZIP Code of last permanent address;
  • Program entry date; and
  • Program exit date.

If only these basic, universal data elements are available, an analysis of HMIS databases from CoCs around the country could provide the following:

  • Information on regional differences in the number and demographic composition of homeless families;
  • Information on the number and size of some subgroups of homeless families (e.g., two-parent families); and
  • Information on the number, size, and characteristics of families that return to shelters after receiving services.

More detailed, program-specific data elements are also collected as part of the HMIS. This information must be collected on all individuals and families participating in various HUD-funded programs, including the Supportive Housing Program, Shelter Plus Care, and Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA). CoCs are encouraged to collect this information on everyone tracked in the HMIS, but since this is not mandated, the extent to which this information is available would need to be determined on a case-by-case basis. These program-specific and outcome data elements include the following:

  • Income (total monthly and sources);
  • Noncash benefits (e.g., food stamps, Medicaid, TANF);
  • Physical disability (dichotomy);
  • Development disability (dichotomy);
  • HIV/AIDS (dichotomy);
  • Mental health (if experiencing [dichotomy] and if problem is expected to be long-standing);
  • Substance abuse (if experiencing [dichotomy] and if problem is expected to be long-standing);
  • Domestic violence (if experiencing and for how long);
  • Services received; and
  • Destination (for those who leave the homeless system).

If this more detailed information on family characteristics, service use, and outcomes can be obtained, then a study of HMIS databases could also provide the following:

  • Information on the needs and services used by homeless families; and
  • Information on differences in the types of services used by homeless families and whether these are related to family differences and/or to outcome differences.

Finally, it might be possible in a number of communities to link HMIS data with information from other government databases, such as public assistance or public housing data. This would provide even more information about each family that could be used both descriptively and to better understand what characteristics and services are related to exiting and staying out of homelessness.

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