The U.S. Conference of Mayors reports homelessness in America’s cities has steadily increased for most of the last two decades. Few American cities have developed appropriate or adequate housing to suit the diverse needs of America’s growing homeless population. For example, since 1979 the amount of federal dollars dedicated annually to housing America’s homeless families has plummeted by about $14 billion. This extreme lack of resources has led most communities to force their entire homeless population into wellestablished programs with the mostly unspoken message to conform… or to suffer on the streets.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — the federal agency that has yet to meaningfully address America’s housing crisis — has now mandated that all municipalities must devote their dwindling housing resources on a computerized tracking system for all homeless people. While HUD’s “Homeless Management Information System” might have a neutral ring to it, it is rife with potentially sinister applications, permitting system administrators to track homeless people as they access services, or even function in a “gatekeeper” role to prevent people with disabilities or other “problems” from accessing vital services.
In efforts to comply with a Congressional mandate for an unduplicated national homeless count, HUD has enacted policies requiring every participating local government agency receiving federal homeless assistance dollars to implement a computer tracking system by 2004 or risk losing federal funding. Communities rightfully fearing legal exposure or potential violations of privacy risk losing federal funding by non-compliance.
Across the United States, advocates are voicing serious concerns that this policy from HUD is misguided, and fear it will actually increase the number of Americans who will spend long periods of their lives without housing. Today, many Americans harbor understandably adverse feelings about furnishing personal information for a governmental database, regardless of whether they are housed or not. No matter what security protocols such a database might feature, the reality is that many citizens will opt out of such a system by not seeking help.
Civil libertarians aren’t alone in their concerns that computerized tracking systems would potentially violate homeless people’s privacy rights. Providers of emergency services for domestic violence survivors fear that such a system could make it easier for abusers to stalk their victims. Health care and mental health providers worry about the potential for violations of client confidentiality. And this isn’t merely an abstract, academic debate. San Francisco is one American community poised to fingerprint, photograph, and widely share homeless people’s life histories among service providers. And tech-savvy San Franciscans are well aware there is precious little to guarantee such systems aren’t exposed to illegal hacking by data pirates.
Meanwhile, the rural communities of Appalachia, the plains of Iowa, or the Pacific Northwest do not have the capacity or the numbers to justify devoting the amount of resources that these computerized tracking systems require. Current HUD allocations for construction of these tracking networks are so small that many communities will be forced to use local resources to implement this federal mandate. And it’s sadly ironic that a Republican- controlled House of Representatives and Executive Branch would force such an “unfunded mandate,” considering it was the Republicans who coined the term.
HUD has years of data and analysis at hand regarding the extent of our national housing crisis. It could easily fund a study of a few representative cities and combine those findings with the data they already possess to determine an academically-based estimate of our national homeless population. It would certainly provide a more accurate accounting than an unproven system dependent on homeless people’s willing participation to achieve an unduplicated count.
It might be easier to support a data tracking system if it resulted in increased housing and healthcare funding for homeless and lowincome families. The two previous Presidential administration determined some very conservative estimates of the number of homeless Americans, but even with these numbers we could easily see dramatic decreases in affordable housing and increases in America’s uninsured.
Homeless people might find themselves more willing to reveal their personal information if it was seen as an avenue to stable, decent housing, but the current federal mandate isn’t.
Data collection schemes such as this serve no-one as well as the politicians, social workers and grantwriters who will use the information to justify requests of the small federal funding pool dedicated to actually combating homelessness. In other words, it makes the bureaucrat’s jobs easier, while making services harder for homeless people to access.
Rather than current federal attempts to manage our housing crisis by rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, isn’t it about time we treat our national disgrace of homelessness as an emergency that demands immediate focus? Whenever a natural disaster strikes the expected response is a surge of federal assistance. New York was the recipient of an unprecedented amount of emergency finances and resources in the wake of the World Trade Center attack last year. In fact, our charitable organizations clamored to help the survivors of that disaster before we had determined the number of people who died.
We should adopt this approach to the national embarrassment we have labeled homelessness. Let’s bring America home first, THEN develop an information management system to help prevent a future crisis.