The 2003 Strategic Action Plan devoted one strategy (Strategy 2.9) to data and measurement issues, which read as follows: Develop an approach for baseline data, performance measurement, and the measurement of reduced chronic homelessness within HHS. While this is an important strategy, a single strategy alone cannot encompass the many data and measurement issues related to homelessness that have been raised within the Department over the past three years. For example, Strategy 2.9 did not address how the Department would measure progress in improving the access to mainstream services for eligible homeless clients. It also did not address how HHS data activities would be coordinated with other federal departments important data activities related to homelessness, such as the creation and utilization of HUDs Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). Therefore, an entirely new goal that contains four separate strategies and focuses exclusively on homelessness data issues and how they relate to tracking Departmental success in addressing the problem of homelessness for the HHS clientele was added to the 2007 Plan.
The new goal (Goal 4) was established to develop an approach to track Departmental progress in preventing, reducing, and ending homelessness for HHS clientele. Strategy 4.1 encourages the Department to inventory homelessness related data that is currently collected in HHS targeted and mainstream programs, including the housing status of participants. Strategy 4.2 promotes the development of an approach for establishing baseline data on the number of homeless individuals and families served in HHS programs, whereas Strategy 4.3 relates to developing a strategy by which to track improved access to HHS mainstream and targeted programs for persons experiencing homelessness. The final strategy identifies collaboration with other Federal departments as a critical component of the Departments homelessness data activities.
In order to measure progress in preventing, reducing, and ending homelessness, the Department needs to have data systems and performance measures at its disposal. It has been the Departments experience that it does not yet have an established data approach by which to track its success in addressing homelessness. The Work Group believes that devoting an entire goal and set of objectives to data and performance measures related to homelessness will aid in the process of measuring the success of the strategic action plan. There is a growing desire within the federal government to focus on results and to measure success by documenting progress. This perspective can be seen within different HHS operating divisions strategic plans. For example, the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) strategic plan for fiscal years 2005-2010 (http://www.hrsa.gov/about/strategicplan.htm) discusses how the agency measures its progress by monitoring a variety of performance measures that are linked to the goals and objectives set out in the strategic plan. In addition to performance measures, the HRSA strategic plan also discusses the need to assess results, program effectiveness, and strategies. Likewise, there should be a Department-wide approach to measuring the effectiveness of the homeless assistance programs, and of the Departments strategic action plan. This new focus on data and measurement issues may also assist HHS homelessness programs with future Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART) reviews.
Furthermore, the Department has been pursuing a strategy over the past several years of increasing access to mainstream resources for eligible homeless individuals and families. In the 2003 Strategic Action Plan the Work Group outlined sixteen strategies to reduce chronic homelessness, one of which was to improve the transition of clients from homeless-specific programs to mainstream service providers. A cornerstone activity under this strategy has been the development and implementation of nine Homeless Policy Academies that were designed to bring together state-level program administrators and homeless service providers in order to develop state-specific action plans designed to increase access to mainstream resources for persons experiencing homelessness. However, the key policy question, Has HHS been successful at improving access to mainstream service programs? cannot yet be answered because no baseline data are available. At the federal level, most mainstream programs are not required to collect data related to the number of homeless clients served. This lack of baseline information about the number of homeless individuals and families served in HHS mainstream programs makes it difficult, if not impossible, for HHS to document improvements in access.
There are a number of challenges in developing this kind of baseline data, particularly due to the fact that homelessness is a dynamic state; a person may be homeless today but housed tomorrow, thus causing fluidity in the number of program participants experiencing homelessness at any given point in time. However, further exploration is warranted to improve the Departments ability to develop measures related to increasing access to mainstream resources for persons experiencing homelessness. It is also important to highlight that these data development efforts are likely to be fruitless if they are not coordinated with our federal partners. As such, Strategy 4.4 emphasizes the importance of coordinating homelessness data activities within HHS with relevant data activities in other federal agencies and Cabinet-level departments such as HUD, VA, DOL, and the USICH. Thus, while the Department will develop its own data strategies internally, it will be paramount to also coordinate our efforts and integrate data across multiple Federal departments.