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Shelter Workers Call State-Mandated Client Data Invasive

Local Matters


Published July 18, 2006 at 5:07 p.m.

RUTLAND - Got homeless clients? Then you need to divulge their personal information. That's the gist of a new state policy that took effect July 1. But the women who run a Rutland shelter aren't buying it. "We said no a year ago, we said no a month ago, and we're saying no now," says Sharon Russell, executive director of the Open Door Mission. Last year, the 40-bed shelter, soup kitchen and thrift store in downtown Rutland provided 37,000 meals and 14,000 bed-nights to its clients, many of them homeless veterans.

The newly implemented, state-run database, known as the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), has been in the works at the federal level since 2003. It's designed to track recipients of federal benefits in order to improve the services offered to the poor, identify demographic trends in homelessness, and prevent duplicate counting of people who are served by more than one shelter or social-service agency.

Shelters have been providing aggregate data about their homeless populations for years, but this is the first time the state has asked them to provide raw data on their clients. The Vermont Agency of Human Services is asking shelters to electronically transmit a client's name, gender, date of birth, Social Security number, race, ethnicity, veteran status, disability condition and prior zip code of residence. Shelters that refuse to comply run the risk of losing their funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

Critics of HMIS, including Russell and her sister, Donna Baccei, argue that the information is too invasive of their clients' privacy.

Russell says the Rutland Open Door Mission will forego the money it gets from the state - about $40,000 of its $230,000 annual budget - rather than reveal that information. Baccei, who works as the shelter's veterans' liaison, has vowed to resign before she will turn over that data. Both fear that their clients will stop coming to the shelter.

Russell says the Rutland Open Door Mission served 28 veterans last week, including two Iraq War vets and a retired Army colonel who served in the White House during the Nixon and Ford administrations. "A good many of these folks" have post-traumatic stress disorder, she says. "We're the end of the road for them. The last thing many of them have is their own privacy. I've worked with these people and earned their trust. I will not give that away."

Steve Gold, deputy secretary for the Vermont Agency of Human Services, explains that the goal of HMIS is simply to get a more detailed and accurate assessment of what's going on with Vermont's homeless trends so that the state can better advocate for federal funding. Currently, Vermont receives more than $2 million in HUD funds, which are distributed through AHS.

Gold insists that his agency is acutely sensitive to the privacy concerns of shelter administrators and their clients. He explains that the web-based data transmission system includes an encryption device and "firewall" that prevent state and federal workers from viewing personal identifying information.

"Homeless people are a particularly vulnerable population in the sense that there is obviously a significant stigma attached to being homeless," Gold says. "I can tell you that we absolutely respect the concerns of people about putting that kind of information into an electronic information system."

Not all shelter administrators around the state are opposed to the new system, Gold notes; in fact, he argues that some see it as a way of justifying their funding and ensuring an unduplicated count of Vermont's homeless population. Gold also doesn't believe that the data-collection system violates a new state law aimed at reducing the use of Social Security numbers on government documents. However, he says that his agency will continue to work with the various providers to find another way of ensuring an unduplicated count, rather than compiling names and Social Security numbers.

The Committee on Temporary Shelter, Chittenden County's largest homeless shelter and way station, reports directly to the feds, and is not subject to the new policy. COTS has been gathering personal information on its clients since 1989, says Executive Director Rita Markley. But the organization only provides the state and federal government with aggregate data, not the raw data on each client.

Late last week, Markley sent an email to her staff and other social service providers in Chittenden County informing them that Chittenden County providers will not be required to turn over their clients' personal data in order to receive homeless grants from the state's general fund. However, each member of the Chittenden "Continuum of Care" will still need to enter data into a privately run database, which HUD requires.

Although she's not directly affected by the new rule, Markley still takes issue with it. "Imagine us asking a paranoid schizophrenic who's off his meds if we can have permission to send his raw data over the Internet," she says.

For her part, Russell says she won't change her position until she receives a formal notification from the state that they don't need the raw data on her clients. She points to the signs in her shelter, which read, "We label cans, not people."