When Congress created the permanent housing set-aside within HUD’s McKiney-Vento programs in 2000, it also directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to require that grantees implement homelessness services management information systems, or HMIS. Congress asked that HUD fund implementation of such systems so that jurisdictions could establish unduplicated counts of clients served by their local homelessness services system, the characteristics of the people served, their patterns of service use and lengths of stay, and the outcomes of their services use. Congress also directed that such systems be used to identify how homelessness was associated with mainstream social welfare systems, both to assure access to mainstream services for people who are homeless and to assess whether mainstream service systems are shifting clients and responsibilities onto the homeless system. In 2000 and in subsequent appropriations, the Congress also asked HUD to compile the HMIS data into an annual report on the utilization of homeless assistance programs and their outcomes. These directives have helped the field to move toward realization of one of the primary recommendations from the Culhane et al. (1999) paper on accountability, namely, the widespread adoption of automated systems for tracking the use of homelessness services.
This effort has not been without obstacles. Most communities have still not fully implemented their systems, and many communities have struggled with technical, cultural, and human resource challenges. However, substantial progress has been made, and the HMIS initiative promises to provide much more comprehensive information for policymakers at all levels of government than has been possible before, and with it, a greater ability to plan and achieve policy goals.
As noted by Congress, one of the principle uses of these new data sources is to measure utilization and outcomes in the homeless system. At a local level, HMIS has enabled communities to create reports like the HUD Annual Progress Reports (APR) on a routine basis. It has also enabled some system managers to monitor utilization through live “dashboards” that show current trends in vacancies, length of stay, admission rates, etc. Agency planners have also been able to use data showing historic utilization patterns to forecast bed demand and as the basis for budget requests. These are but a few of the practical uses of HMIS data for performing the most elementary aspects of program administration.
HUD has also used the expanding HMIS infrastructure as a basis for creating the annual profile of homeless system utilization requested by Congress, through a project called the Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR). The AHAR project has thus far involved several efforts intended to standardize information and reporting and to enable uniform assessments of homeless assistance program utilization nationally. A comprehensive set of federal data definitions and standards was published in the July 30, 2004 issue of the Federal Register. The data standards help ensure that all homeless shelters are collecting the same information on the clients they serve. Software vendors and other system developers use the federal standards to assure that their products are sufficient for meeting HUD’s expectation for privacy and data security, that common data elements are being collected and in standard formats, and to assure that key analysis and reporting features can be supported. The data elements distinguish between “universal data elements” (a short set of identifiers and characteristics to be tracked for all clients in all programs), and “program data elements” (a longer list of client characteristics and needs/progress updates that support collection of data required for HUD’s APR).
The primary goal of the AHAR project is to produce a national estimate of the number of homeless persons sheltered and a profile of the persons served. The report is based on a nationally representative sample of jurisdictions in the U.S. The 15 largest cities were all selected with certainty to be part of the national sample, as the largest jurisdictions contain a substantial proportion of the urban homeless population overall. The remaining sites were chosen randomly within strata defined by geographic region, jurisdiction type, and population. In total, 80 communities were selected for inclusion in the AHAR project.
The first AHAR report had to be based on a partial year (February 1–April 30, 2005), as HMIS implementation had not progressed sufficiently and data standards had not been promulgated in time to include the entire government fiscal year as the reporting period. A longer, but still partial period has been selected for the second AHAR (January 1–June 30); the third AHAR (September 2006–October 2007) and subsequent AHARs will cover an entire year. The 2005 AHAR includes data from 64 jurisdictions, including 55 from the sample and 9 voluntary contributors. Only jurisdictions from the sample that had sufficient participation of providers were included (50 percent of a jurisdiction’s beds had to be tracked). This “coverage” threshold was set to support reliable extrapolation for the untracked beds.
The results of the first AHAR have not yet been published as of January 2007, but initial indications are that the results show that the HMIS effort and the national sample are effective methods for estimating homelessness nationally, and that they will eventually enable the measurement of changes in utilization over time. As more cities are able to provide data, estimation will improve. Although initial AHARs are focused primarily on population estimates and demographic breakdowns, future reports will be able to provide more detailed analyses of stay patterns and outcomes for specific subpopulations and programs.
Although the HMIS is the largest and most ambitious homelessness-specific reporting system, other federally supported reporting systems also hold promise for providing data on service utilization trends, costs, and performance measurement. These include the Department of Veterans Affairs national reporting systems, which have served as the basis for many valuable research and evaluation projects; the Runaway and Homeless Youth Management Information System (RHYMIS); and the national reporting requirements for Programs for Assistance with the Transition to Housing (PATH) projects. Each of these efforts can help to shape public awareness and understanding of homeless people, and the programs that serve them, as well as serve as tools for improving program performance and outcomes.