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SOURCE: HRDC's Homeless Individuals and Families Information System

- For immediate release (Ottawa: 9 Jan 03) -

National homeless shelter tracking system still unfinished

Tracking system still unfinished
Accurate data on the homeless are expected to help experts understand and resolve the problem, but the long-awaited national tracking program still has bugs, Juliet O'Neill reports.

Juliet O'Neill
The Ottawa Citizen

Monday, January 06, 2003

Laird Eddy, administrator of Ottawa's Mission, says the national information system, called HIFIS (Homeless Individuals and Families Information System), has too many bugs and limitations. He has been 'praying' the system can be made to work.

After seven years and more than $1.3 million spent on consulting, planning, designing, programming, testing, updating and testing again, a national homeless information tracking system still isn't off the ground across the country.

Shelters are using a hodgepodge of data systems. Some, including the Mission in Ottawa, won't touch the new system. And those using it are not yet sending information to a central database -- the goal of the program to begin with -- because the rules for doing so haven't been worked out. A national system that could help policymakers is still an estimated two or three years away.

"A lot of money is going down the drain maintaining people in their homelessness," says David Hulchanski, an urban-planning expert at the University of Toronto who praises the potential usefulness of a national data system to more smartly allocate public funds. "My only complaint is they're not serious about it. Why has it taken so long ?"

One of the reasons, says Al Mitchell, of the Lookout Emergency Aid Society, which operates three shelters in Vancouver, is that the government has taken the trouble to consult carefully with shelters instead of creating a "top-down" system that does little more than feed a bureaucratic hunger for statistics.

But a negative reason cited by Laird Eddy, administrator of Ottawa's Mission, is that the system, called HIFIS, for Homeless Individuals and Families Information System, contains too many bugs and limitations, and ironing them out has taken a long time. They're still not close to satisfying him, though he has been "praying."

An internal debate from the beginning was whether it would be better for the government to spend money housing the homeless rather than tracking the unhappy details of their lives, needs and movements from one shelter to another or one city to another.

"It's a top-of-mind debate," said Guido Weisz, the federal official at Human Resources Development Canada who defended progress on the program so far. "On one hand, you want to use as much of the money as possible to help the homeless. On the other hand, you also want to do so effectively. Communities and provinces have all called upon us to take leadership around doing more research so that they can invest better."

A consensus was reached that most of the information was being gathered anyway on a local level and should be harnessed on a national scale. It could then be used by federal, provincial and municipal policymakers to figure out the scale of long-term, short-term and periodic homelessness, the reasons and what to do about it.

Nobody knows just how many homeless there are in Canada. The only national figures are a snapshot from Statistics Canada, showing about 14,000 people in shelters on census day, 2001. That doesn't include people living on the street or with friends, or in emergency hostels, hotels and motels. The StatsCan figure for Ottawa was 1,040.

"Spending on information systems is nickels, tenths of a cent, compared to the tremendous amount that's being spent on services," said Dennis Culhane, a leading American expert on homeless data crunching who has been consulted by Canadian authorities.

One study led by Mr. Culhane tracked 10,000 homeless people in New York, half of whom were provided housing. He found the average cost of maintaining a homeless person was $40,000 U.S. and that the cost of housing the 5,000 was almost fully offset by their lack of need for emergency shelter and other public services.

Closer to home, at the Mission, Mr. Eddy said it was discovered a few years ago, by collating data at Ottawa's shelters for men, that some of them are just passing through, intending to stay only a few days and not sticking around long enough to need help finding housing, a job or addiction recovery assistance.

"That allowed us to re-organize our resources, saved us some resources," he said. The effect of that kind of information, gathered routinely now when people sign in to the Mission shelter, trickles down to less wasteful planning in welfare worker caseloads, among other services.

Mr. Eddy is one of many who had looked forward to participating in a national data system.

But he is unhappy with HIFIS so far because he can't get access to the computer program code to make it work with the Mission's system of data collection and billing.

Ironically, the Mission, which has 25 computers and a full-time IT specialist, was one of the models on which the system was based when it was being developed by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

CMHC worked on the system with shelter groups, representatives from other levels of government and the help of a technical manager from 1995 to 2000, and then handed it over to Human Resources and Development Canada.

"It was done on a shoestring," said John Engeland, the CMHC researcher who shepherded the project as far as he could in a research and development capacity -- without any funds to operate a system or to help shelters install it or convert their systems.

Since the handover to HRDC, $1.3 million has been spent developing, installing, converting data systems, training users, and trying HIFIS software, which comes with hundreds of pages of user manuals.

Yet to date, there's still a mixed bag of data systems being used at shelters across the country, some of them pilot tests of a version of HIFIS that had too many snags for some users and has just recently been replaced with a new updated HIFIS Version 2.

And the shelters and transition houses using the system are not sending their information to a central database because the protocols for doing so have not yet been worked out.

One troubling question is how to protect the privacy of the homeless people, as data on them are sent from one database to another.

"We are still at an early stage with the system," Mr. Weisz, director of policy and research at HRDC's National Secretariat on Homelessness, said in an interview.

But he defended the program against those who say it is taking too long, saying it was merely a research project at CMHC and has been developed at HRDC into a workable software system. "I don't see us dilly-dallying on the process at all. We've made great strides forward."

He said 377 shelters and transition houses out of a potential 1,800 are using HIFIS now and he estimated it will take two or three more years before it is deployed on what could be considered a national scale.

While Mr. Weisz talks as though HIFIS was born just a couple of years ago, others date it back to 1995 when Mr. Engeland and others, concerned that homeless policy was too often based on "hunches and hearsay," organized an experts workshop.

It was agreed then to mobilize authorities around data collection to improve policymaking and many provincial, municipal and shelter authorities, plus EDS, a technology company, pitched in on designing the system.

Mr. Engeland said CMHC paid for periodic meetings and expert advice and the total cost was in the range of a few hundred thousand dollars. Most of those involved were on a government payroll.

Connie Woloschuk, head of the City of Ottawa's homeless initiatives team, dates HIFIS back seven years, saying it took "a long time to develop."

She expressed relief in an interview that HRDC had hired technical consultants and pulled together Version 2. Pilot tests of the earlier version at the Salvation Army and other shelters in Ottawa will soon end and "we're almost ready to roll it out to the other shelters," she said.

But count the Mission out, says Mr. Eddy. His reaction to the fact that Version 2 is being rolled out was to laugh. Mr. Mitchell, in Vancouver, says Mr. Eddy has fixed on "a key weakness" of earlier versions of HIFIS that did not allow users to pull a data file from programming code.

Version 2 has separated code from data.

The Vancouver shelters have to rejig their system now to use Version 2. But Mr. Mitchell isn't unhappy.

Thanks to getting HIFIS and new computers from a separate HRDC program grant, his homeless aid group saved $30,000 in planned spending that instead went directly to homeless people.

Mr. Weisz said HRDC will try to persuade reluctant shelters to sign on in part by citing success stories and offering help in installing, training and operational support.

"The last thing we want to do is plunk a whole new data system in front of somebody and say 'Go for it'," said Mr. Weisz.

One success story his office singled out involved the shelters in the Peel region of Ontario, which installed Version 1 of HIFIS last summer in shelters that had been collecting data manually.

Christine Gallant, an Ontario Works official involved in organizing the installation of computers and HIFIS in Peel, said the training takes half a day and the improvement in data collection is huge.

"Being able to have concrete data at your fingertips to support an argument is one of the best things about it," she said. Data analysis has shown that about 41 per cent of shelter users in Peel are actually employed at least part time, backing the argument that a lack of affordable housing was a prime reason for homelessness.

One thing Ms. Gallant was not keen on doing anytime soon was telling front-line emergency workers that they would be adopting HIFIS Version 2.

Version 2 is very different from Version 1," she said. "Right now we're content with the way things are. We need all of our shelters doing the same thing."

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