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Maximizing HMIS Methods to Assess & Address Homelessness

The Point-in-Time (PIT) Count serves as a critical occasion on the CoC calendar. Yet it is not without its limitations. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) relies on the count, where volunteers and field workers conduct a census of people experiencing homelessness to better measure the homeless population on a national level. 

Several factors that are common to most surveys affect the reliability of the PIT. First, it’s a snapshot in time—the results of the count may not accurately reveal the population year-round. Second, homelessness is a fluid condition. For all the people currently experiencing homelessness, there’s more at risk of falling into it, while some are coming out of it. These risks can be exacerbated by social issues (racism or transphobia), substance abuse, domestic violence, mental health, and social determinants of health

No one data point can give you a clear picture of the population experiencing homelessness, just as no singular policy can effectively aid those individuals. This is incredibly important to keep in mind when taking a whole person care approach

Reliable and timely data is essential for CoCs to create effective change and properly allocate energy and resources to assist their clients. 

Data can mean a lot of things. Here’s one way to think of data: as points of interaction between a system of care and clients, from notifications that a client has entered the system to referrals to essential services. Data also combines with demographic information—veteran status, gender, or race, for example—to help case managers identify clients’ unique needs

By gathering this data with a robust HMIS, CoCs can use it to facilitate real-time decisions and better understand the challenges in front of them. 


Humanizing Case Management

It’s easy to get caught up on data, however, and focus solely on large-scale solutions. If you know of 20 people experiencing homelessness, you might focus on getting the entire group into permanent housing. And why not? Don’t we all want to reduce homelessness as much and as quickly as possible? 

While a lofty goal, it’s only feasible if you cater to the individual. With so many variables leading to an individual’s status—from health-related issues to substance abuse to loss of income—the path to help them must be customized to address immediate concerns and plan for effective care. 

For instance, your CoC may need to develop a customized assessment tool that goes beyond the VI-SPDAT to better meet your local needs, ensuring the data accurately reflect your community’s work. 

Data matters, and will ultimately influence policy, but the people involved cannot be treated merely as data points. It starts with implementing tools that humanize your case management strategies. 

Another way to “put the person first” is to put tools in your case managers’ hands that improve the experience for both the client and user alike. Prioritize the following features: 

  • Duplicate client check: Know if yours is the first interaction with a client.
  • Tooltip text: Get helpful tips to guide your data entry, such as how to ask difficult questions or explanations on the field’s intent. 
  • Field constraints or conditional display logic: Only display information that is relevant to your client, simultaneously simplifying the intake process for case managers.
  • Auto-cascading data: Pre-populate fields with information your CoC may have gathered in a prior assessment. 

Other beneficial features include alerts (to identify inconsistent responses and go over them a second time), tracked characteristics (to filter referrals), and auto-assigned goals and service placements (to enroll clients in at least a minimum number of helpful services). 

All of these will help your case managers build personal relationships and provide human solutions. You’ll get clearer data and be able to make informed, real-time decisions that make an immediate difference. 


Optimizing Coordinated Entry

There are common components we can identify across the different methods to effectively care for clients and build trust. Providing a humanized experience, as mentioned above, is certainly one of them. Another one is optimizing your Coordinated Entry System (CES). 

Think about data as a whole for a moment. The PIT Count gives you only a snapshot of the population experiencing homelessness at that particular time. It doesn’t show you the full scope: those who weren’t counted (for various reasons) as well as those in non-permanent housing (e.g., teenagers couch-surfing) or at risk of homelessness.

While the PIT Count is helpful in many ways, you can’t fully rely on it to inform policy decisions. Instead, leading CoCs optimize their coordinated entry process to cultivate data that presents an accurate view of the homeless population and to achieve results, directing clients to services they need as soon as possible.  

Beyond waitlisting, coordinated entry is about getting clients immediate assistance—in the form of assessments, enrollments, or services—regardless of which system of care they come into contact with. It’s a way for providers to communicate across programs and connect one another with clients. These collaborative efforts are further reinforced by effective HMIS integrations

Although coordinated entry entails the act of collecting information, it can be an extended process. Consistent engagement is key to establishing trust between workers and clients. If you’re a field worker, you might bring clean blankets, socks, or drinking water directly to encampments. As these relationships develop, you can move clients into and through the coordination entry system at their own pace, even if it means creating partial records. 

The more you learn about clients, the better you can communicate across systems of care to create priority lists for services, track clients’ progress, and set honest expectations. 

How clients enter the system might vary for each person, but the steps to provide care should be easy to navigate. With results you can trust, you can identify points of success and places for improvement to optimize the coordinated entry process.


Improving Outreach Effectiveness

If coordinated entry centers on connecting as many clients to systems of care as possible, then outreach is, if not the most crucial step, the step that establishes a path to success. 

Outreach efforts are built on bringing aid directly to individuals rather than waiting for them to come to you. After all, individuals are often reluctant to seek help (for several reasons) or don’t know where to find it. In years past, outreach work involved a lot of guesswork, trying to determine clients’ locations. 

The tried-and-true principles of outreach work still apply, but they’ve now been bolstered by geospatial analytics. This data enables users to track encampments as well as individuals. Users can draw on interactive maps to label encampments, add helpful information, mark encampments as active or inactive, and view changes over time. 

This is a huge benefit to CoCs who can quickly identify where populations are and go to them. It’s an important feature in everyday care—fresh clothes or a bus ticket can go a long way in building trust between client and field worker—but it’s absolutely life-saving in times of crisis. 

You’ll notice it annually in cases of extreme weather: heat, cold, or natural disasters like hurricanes. CoCs who know where their clients are can act quickly to provide safety or resources for them. This has also been imperative to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic that poses a threat to homeless populations, many of whom carry underlying conditions that increase their risk of death. 

Using geospatial analytics, CoCs can easily distribute masks and hand sanitizer while moving the most vulnerable individuals into available housing. Short-term relief often determines long-term success, a truism that defines outreach.


Fresh, Reliable Data From Clarity Human Services

Communities will find different ways to implement best practices related to combatting homelessness, but they’ll have the most success by leveraging a powerful HMIS

Clarity Human Services, Bitfocus’ HMIS offering, serves as a comprehensive platform for users to optimize their strategies from the first interaction with a client to housing and beyond. 

Bitfocus relies on its own experience in the field as an HMIS administrator to optimize user experience and functionality. In addition to the 175-plus pre-built reports in the Report Library, Clarity Human Services includes robust business intelligence, data analysis, and visualization tools that allow users to explore and interact with their client data. 

These user-friendly tools demystify data exploration, providing easy access to powerful insights with advanced customization:

  • Public-facing dashboards and embeddable visualizations: The public data model in the Data Analysis Tools allows analysts to confidently create public-facing dashboards, reports, and queries while ensuring personally identifiable information will not be accessible from public-facing websites.
  • Custom reporting: The Clarity Human Services Data Analysis Tool gives analysts access to query both HUD and custom data elements, build and save custom calculations, and create custom reports and dashboards.
  • Advanced analysis: Advanced users can use our Customer Data Model to script their own queries, including automated SFTP uploads and full API access. They can also connect directly to our database servers to integrate third-party statistical and analysis tools (Tableau®, Crystal Reports®, etc.). Our RESTful APIs provide secure, real-time access to client data, system performance, and other insights.
  • Geospatial analytics: Location information can be combined with other data points to create geographic visualizations (i.e., maps) using our built-in Data Analysis Tool or third-party reporting tools. Clarity Human Services includes native integration with ArcGIS Online®—opening the door to geospatial integrations with other users of the industry's leading GIS platform.

Clarity’s Data Analysis Tool removes the complexity that often stands in the way of accessing and understanding the data contained in your HMIS. You’ll feel empowered to answer questions, develop and improve processes, and leverage quantifiable results to inform and support decision-making. 

The empowerment that comes from leveraging your data can lead to numerous benefits. Acquire more HUD funding. Influence policy-makers. Monitor and evaluate outcomes at a client and system level to better allocate resources and assess your goals. Build relationships with stakeholders and nonprofits to assist your efforts. Most importantly, gain a clearer picture of the homeless population and your housing inventory.

Combined with effective care, Clarity Human Services produces the kind of immediate impact that generates long-term results.

Master your HMIS. Maximize your energy.

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