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Why "innovation" around houselessness fails so much
While communities might need better governance and data tools to coordinate social services, entrenched power dynamics make it hard for data reforms to go deep enough to make a difference.
Before I dive in, a quick thanks to everyone who attended my session at Flash Forward Fest to unpack what makes local data and technology projects good for the communities they serve. In case you missed it, you can find a recording of the session here.
I’d like to facilitate more conversations between folks who reach out through this newsletter! I’ve been inspired and energized by the lessons many of you have shared, and it feels such a waste to keep them all to myself. If you want to engage more or make Civic Source more engaging, please reach out.
Most of the time, innovation projects that aim to tackle houselessness make me go into skeptic mode. There are some spaces where data problems just aren’t the biggest problems; there is no amount of innovation that would end houselessness.
But why is it so hard for data to at least play a meaningful role?
For one, most communities already spend a lot of time and resources managing and maintaining Homelessness Management Information Systems (HMIS). HMIS is a federally mandated data system that every community receiving funds to tackle houselessness must build and manage.
As national housing nonprofit Community Solutions wrote in a 2018 impact report, “HMIS was imagined long before we truly understood what we would need technology to do for us on the ground.”
HMIS is just one of many mandates from government funders and philanthropists that leverage data to prove that communities are effectively using funds.
As a result, most community service providers are stuck spending time and energy using data to track, monitor, and report on people without houses, instead of exploring how they might use data to get more people into houses.
HMIS systems centralize power and resources in a space that needs more decentralization, collaboration, and empowerment to solve the problem at hand.
Functionally, HMIS exists to track the availability and uptake of social services that are available to people experiencing houselessness, and to report that data to the federal government. Alliances, coalitions, and large-scale nonprofits get big tranches of funds to administer HMIS systems according to specifications handed down from HUD.
Centralized data is important. The biggest benefit of such a large-scale data system is that administering it requires convening providers so they can start working together. And without nationwide data systems, we would know less about the scope of large-scale issues like houselessness.
But HMIS systems don’t necessarily count every person experiencing houselessness, since they only register people who interact with services. That’s why HUD also runs the annual Point-in-Time Count, a survey conducted by block-walking volunteers, which is known to severely undercount the number of people who need services.
And as you might imagine, the HMIS specs developed by HUD to serve every community in the country don’t always meet the needs of the local service providers. As a result, providers who have access to HMIS data don’t always find it useful for refining or improving their services, even though they spend significant time and energy maintaining it.
So, most providers collect their own additional data, tailored to their needs to better understand who they’re serving.
Some organizations are better than others at building relationships or tracking who they encounter through services or person-to-person interaction. They can enter data-sharing agreements to share good data with other organizations in their community of care, outside of the HMIS.
Data-sharing is a major key to unlocking better housing services in the U.S. Multiple different providers have to work together to move someone into the housing that’s right for them. They might also need help getting a job, applying for disability insurance, or treating substance abuse or mental health issues. But sharing data to coordinate a complex web of services is not always a funding priority.
We’ll struggle to use data to coordinate communities of care as long as we avoid the elephant in the room.
Our modern system of care is built on a legacy of paternalism and disdain for poor people, Black people, immigrants, and other marginalized groups.
For decades (since the uptick in houselessness after budget cuts in the 1980s under Reagan), our system has treated people without houses like invalid members of society who live on the street because of their own moral failings.
Our current systems of gathering and sharing data about houselessness still stem from that punitive legacy.
Much of the data that is collected isn’t actually designed to end houselessness, it’s designed to perpetuate a system of monitoring funds. Governments and private philanthropies alike use data reporting to make sure that community service providers aren’t abusing funds.
By continuing to gather data about issues that frontline workers and people with lived experience already know about, funders accentuate the reality that they don’t trust the people they’re funding and serving.
But there are bottom-up solutions out there. In 2015, Community Solutions launched a campaign called Built for Zero that encourages service providers to pare down their data efforts, and focus on creating a local “By-Name List”.
A By-Name List is a real-time register of every person experiencing houselessness in each community. In the Built for Zero framework, providers can stick to collecting the minimum amount of information that’s necessary to get someone housed, and must secure that’s person’s consent to be tracked.
Efforts like these give us a helpful launchpad to have more pressing conversations about how data is used to address houselessness, including building more structure for people to exercise their data rights.
People without houses deserve to have control over access to their personal information.
Anyone who works with houseless communities has seen that some of the most reluctant people to enter shelter or transitional housing are people who seriously don’t trust public systems. If we respected their wishes, we would give them an opportunity to opt-out of tracking by public systems, too.
Some might argue that, given the choice, too many people would then opt out of the system, making it harder to deliver services. But maybe that’s for the better. We should be able to build systems that people actually trust.
In many small and mid-sized communities, houselessness may affect a few dozen or a few hundred people. Building data infrastructure to surveil this group of people is arguably much more cost-intensive than hiring enough people to learn their names.
In an ideal world, each community of care could establish governance principles that would let people who are receiving services know exactly how their information would be used. They could legally share their personal information with trusted providers who would then be able to share that information with each other.
In that ideal world, providers could use data without the fear that they’re disclosing or sharing too much. They could share data with one another openly to the extent that it meets the needs or demands of the people receiving services. This is the potential power of giving people agency over their own information in their communities of care.
Despite the liberatory potential, most data projects are so constrained by entrenched power dynamics that they don’t really stand a chance.
There are few ways for communities of care to use data that don’t come into direct contact with funding power dynamics that dictate how data is used. Most of the good ones use data as secondary tool to support strong community relationships, with an emphasis on building trust, dignity, and informed consent.
But these solutions go against the status quo. In resource-limited environments, communities of care often don’t have enough support to experiment safely with new data projects. (The keyword here is safe experimentation, because in general we need to stop testing brand new ideas on vulnerable people. It’s gross.)
I want to learn more from people who are working on data in this space. A lot of my ideas about just uses of data in this space come from liberatory social workers who remind us how our systems are steeped in legacies of criminalization and punishment that cut us off from one another.
All I know for now is that until communities have the power to create more just systems of care that ensure dignity for the people they serve, technologies that attempt to solve the gaps in ending houselessness will always fall short.
Have a data project to share? Want to be connected with others working on this issue?
Abolitionist Social Work: Possibilities, Paradox, and Praxis - The Network to Advance Abolitionist Social Work (NAASW) and Haymarket Books host a panel about the possibilities of abolitionist social work.
This is Our (Caring) Revolution - An episode of the On Being podcast with Ai-Jen Poo about the overlooked societal value of caregiving work.
Research Shows “Housing First” Works in Denver - One of the many pieces of research confirming that the best way to get people out of houselessness is to give them houses.
4 Communities Have Ended Chronic & Veteran Houselessness - A map of the communities that have ended chronic and/or veteran houselessness. It’s possible!