American-born homeless database is heading to Canada

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As the more patient folks in the audience may already know, my lengthy feature article this week charts the growth of the Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) database, a federally-mandated registry of homeless and economically disadvantaged people which has been growing both in size and scope over the past decade. Here in Central Florida, the local HMIS database now houses the personal information of over 86,000 individuals. As I explain in the article, the database’s proponents view the growth of HMIS as essential to improving homeless services, but detractors view it as a threat to the privacy of those served by homeless agencies.

Now that you've got the executive summary, here’s an interesting tidbit about growth that didn’t make it into the original story: HMIS will soon be arriving in Canada. According to Alina Tanasescu, vice president of research and public policy for the Calgary Homeless Foundation, homeless agencies in Calgary will start training to use the American-born system next month, and will “go live” shortly after training wraps up. This will make Calgary the first city outside of the States to implement HMIS, which was the brainchild of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. “Everybody's watching us across Canada,” Tanasescu says. “We’re the guinea pig.”

(This pilot city approach is essentially the opposite of the top-down strategy taken here in the States, where the system was mandated by Congress in 2000 and implemented to varying levels of success at the local level throughout the past decade.)

After HMIS is installed, the 45 participating homeless agencies in Calgary will collect basic client information—including name, race, date of birth, gender, and so forth—and send it to the local “mothership” that is the Calgary Homeless Foundation, just as all the agencies using HMIS in Orlando send their data to the Homeless Services Network of Central Florida. As in the States, the goal is to use the data to better understand homelessness in the area, and hence, provide better services to the homeless. “The idea is that the better we integrate, the better the outcomes are going to be for the client,” Tanasescu says.

Canadians concerned about all this sensitive personal information collected in one place can take some solace in that unlike U.S. systems, the Calgary Homeless Foundation will not collect that especially important 9-digit federal identifier, which in Canada is called a “Social Insurance Number.” (Jay Foley of the Identity Theft Resource Center regards a Social Security Number as the most coveted piece of information for an identity thief. “That’s the core piece of information I need for almost everything,” he says, channeling his inner thief. )

But Tanasescu also considers it possible that collecting more personal information—such as the SIN number—may be mandated later by the Canadian government if the system is viewed as a success and takes root across the country.  And she has little doubt that this will happen.

“We think it's really going to lead the way in Canada, and other communities will adopt it when they see how well it works here,” she says.

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