Who is homeless? What services do they receive? Who provides those services?
Vantage points for understanding homelessness differ greatly. Some members of our community have direct, personal understanding. They experience, or have experienced, life without a permanent place to live, or they work, day in day out, with or for homeless people. Other members of our community have little or no firsthand knowledge – developing an understanding based on occasional observations of homeless people or on news articles about the homeless population.
Similarly, HMIS – the Homeless Management Information System – is selectively known. People who deliver services to the homeless, and people who establish policies and funding for those services – they know HMIS very well. The general public, on the other hand, has never heard the acronym, although they might have read news reports based on HMIS data. In addition, they have unknowingly benefited from HMIS to the extent that the agencies which they support through tax dollars, or to which they make charitable contributions, can provide services more effectively and efficiently because of HMIS.
How did HMIS come to be? In 2001, Congress directed the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to collect better data on homelessness. HUD created a vision for HMIS using wisdom from communities who had already developed information systems to track services to homeless people. Locally, Wilder Research served as a pre-HMIS pioneer, establishing an emergency shelter database in Ramsey County under the leadership of Dr. Richard Chase in 1991. HUD mandated what data homeless service providers must collect in order to receive federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Grants, the primary source of federal funding directed at homelessness. HUD provided limited technical assistance, and made limited funding available for competitive applications from communities.
Local networks of homelessness service providers, called Continuums of Care, had the obligation to implement sophisticated, internet-based data systems in order to continue to receive McKinney-Vento funding, which remains the federal government’s primary source of funding directed at homelessness.
We at Wilder Research moved forward, along with Minnesota Housing, to collaborate with the Continuums of Care and other stakeholders to create the vision and governance for the new system, select a technical vendor, and secure funding. Minnesota Housing, the Family Housing Fund, and the Greater Minnesota Housing Fund contributed funding. Data collection began in 2003, when Wilder Research assumed the authority of Lead Agency and System Administrator for Minnesota’s Homeless Management Information System.
Today, HMIS serves all 10 Continuums of Care in Minnesota – including over 800 end-users and 230 service providers-- tracking the volume and type of service use by homeless people within agencies, across agencies, and for the entire state. It is used for both federal and state reporting.
HMIS “Reaching Maturity”
In 2015, given the growth in size and cost of HMIS over a decade, we worked with others to analyze the system and develop a new plan. During the planning process, HUD advisors proposed that responsibilities for managing HMIS be split, with one organization focused on governance and another on administration. A decision was made that Wilder Research would continue in its role of system administrator; Minnesota Housing would take on governance and policy. We established the goal to issue an RFP in 2017 for a new system administrator.
These proposed changes, we hoped, would set Minnesota’s HMIS on a firm footing for the next decade.
In 2016, the 10 Continuums of Care decided to accelerate the organizational shift. So, in collaboration with HUD, the state of Minnesota, the Continuums of Care, and others, we are transferring our responsibilities to another organization.
Data for Social Good: Into the Future
We at Wilder Research are very proud of our legacy with HMIS. Creation of a data system, especially with many moving parts, always involves daunting challenges. I particularly want to acknowledge the Wilder Research staff who contributed so much to this effort. They care deeply about providing the highest-quality service, producing high-quality data, and ending homelessness.
The service delivery system for homeless people in Minnesota has many facets. Establishing a high quality HMIS required strategic, political, and technical savvy which we contributed along with other stakeholders to make HMIS the valuable resource that it is today, providing data for social good.
(Interested in some research based on HMIS information? Take a look at these outcomes and return-on-investment reports.)