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Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Spotlight on PATH Practices and Programs: Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS)
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Collecting and storing information about consumers can be a daunting and cumbersome task. Contrary to programs that have unique data tracking systems, programs funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), utilize Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS). A HMIS is a locally administered, electronic data collection system that stores longitudinal person-level information about persons who access the homeless service system.

Over the years, HMIS implementation has matured to include local, state, and nationally funded programs that are not HUD funded and are not required to enter their data in HMIS. These programs choose to use HMIS to coordinate services, enhance community planning efforts, and maximize data collection and reporting. Communities find that using HMIS to coordinate the managed care system benefits clients, homeless service providers, and homeless planning efforts. By participating in HMIS, programs ensure their service populations are represented in the community homeless planning process. Additionally, data from HMIS informs resource allocation from Congress.

Below are tips for PATH participation in HMIS:

Collaboration is Key

Fostering a strong working relationship with key community stakeholders, including the HMIS administering organization, improves a community’s chances of using HMIS for PATH data collection. Often collaborations begin when an agency that has multiple funding streams and multiple reporting requirements wants to use one system for data collection and reporting. Collaboration with other local providers and the HMIS administering organization can assist with implementing efficient business processes, resulting in more time for case managers to spend directly with clients. The local Continuum of Care, Interagency Council on Homelessness, or Coalition to End Homelessness are effective partners in navigating and prioritizing local community data collection and planning efforts.

Privacy and Confidentiality Concerns

When considering joining an HMIS, privacy and confidentiality concerns should be fully assessed. For PATH providers, the Health Insurance Protection and Portability Act (HIPPA) requires written client consent for participation in HMIS. Baseline privacy and security measures are established in the HMIS Data and Technical Standards. Many communities establish appropriate data privacy and security policies and procedures for HIPAA covered entities, including PATH providers, to participate in HMIS. Additional security procedures include: running PATH programs as “closed” in the HMIS, limiting access to authorized and authenticated personnel, enforcing stringent hardware and software security protections, and requiring regular training and education. These measures usually alleviate privacy and confidentiality concerns.

Uses of Data to Inform Homeless Planning

Statewide and community planning efforts rely on accurate, reliable, statistically valid, and comprehensive data to facilitate service delivery, policy prioritization, and funding. PATH data allows for expanded insight into the homeless population, their needs, and gaps in service. With data collected in HMIS, communities are able to outline a robust picture of street homelessness – the symptoms, causes, and potential programmatic and policy barriers. With the assistance of PATH data tracked in HMIS, New Jersey identified a lack of in-patient substance abuse treatment facilities, Iowa informed the Mental Health Block Grant, and Mental Health Disability Plan process, and Cincinnati used data to focus their outreach efforts on the hardest-to-serve street clients. With more and more PATH providers throughout the country participating in HMIS, we will better understand the effectiveness of interventions for persons living on the streets.

Reporting Benefits

Collecting and reporting data are key components of homeless programming. Service providers and their counterparts in government rely on reports to measure performance, promote change, and design new services. Reporting can be cumbersome and time-consuming for providers, and the result isn’t always as complete or effective as communities need for planning and program design. Integrating PATH data into an HMIS benefits both providers and the community. Providers gain access to technical capacity for faster, more efficient and accurate reporting and communities gain access to critical outreach data. PATH providers are able to successfully capture quality data in HMIS to produce the PATH Annual Report, saving time and resources.

Software Flexibility

The ability of any HMIS software to flex or bend to meet the needs of PATH homeless outreach is critical for HMIS-PATH data collection collaboration. In all three featured communities HMIS software needed to be customized to meet the unique data collection and reporting needs of the PATH Program. Modifications are usually made to accommodate a unique PATH assessment and the PATH Annual Report.

To learn more about HMIS and PATH read the full PATH Spotlight.

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