PD&R, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development - Office of Policy Development and Research

The City of Spokane Homeless Management Information System

To effectively address the needs of their homeless population, communities must be able to count the number of homeless individuals and gain a better understanding of the challenges those individuals face. In 1995, the Human Services Department of the city of Spokane, WA took on the challenge of counting the homeless and began developing a Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) that contains a database and a Homeless Coalition Web site.

Spokane's HMIS was designed to achieve an accurate count of homeless individuals living in the city in order to better understand their needs and to improve communication among homeless providers. Spokane's Human Services Department has now received nationwide attention for its success in developing the database. In 1998, the system received the John J. Gunther Best Practices Blue Ribbon Award from HUD and the Association of Washington Cities Municipal Achievement Award. Since 1999, the Human Services Department has worked with the University of Pennsylvania on numerous reports about the prevalence of homelessness, and on a report on the effects of welfare reform.

Developing the System

From the beginning, the Spokane's Human Services Department collaborated with organizations that help the homeless to develop Spokane's data intake system. The collaboration resulted in the installation of a networked, computerized system and the creation of standardized forms - intake, assessment, discharge, and follow-up - that homeless providers use when working with each homeless client or household. When a homeless person seeks services at any of the participating organizations, she must complete an intake form or a contact log form. Those who participate in more intensive services, such as case management or sheltering, must complete the detailed assessment form at intake and again at discharge. All forms are then entered into Spokane's centralized system.

The data is used to measure needs and outcomes over time as the homeless transition through the various services. To include those who do not routinely connect to services, multi-agency outreach teams systematically canvass places where homeless people gather, complete contact log forms for those they meet, and enter the information in the database.

The Human Services Department also maintains a Web site that provides professionals with updated client data from the intake system and information about specific homeless services available to clients. For example, the Web site provides information on the target population of certain service providers and on daily shelter vacancies.

The Core and Unique Features

Since its inception in 1995, the number of organizations reporting to the database has increased steadily, enabling the system to capture and track more information about the homeless population in Spokane. In 2001, Spokane made significant improvements to the system that included updating the intake and assessment forms to add specific geographic information and to track needs within specific communities and neighborhoods. Some of the core and unique features of the system are as follows:

  • To ensure confidentiality and build trust, no names are used in the system; client information is matched by birthday, initials, and gender.
  • The HMIS methodology allows the user to create unduplicated counts and household and demographic descriptions based on user-defined parameters. Further, Spokane has developed strategies for generating both "time interval" and "single point in time" unduplicated counts.
  • Survey forms are not static and are designed for use in a variety of settings. The committee that regularly reviews and redesigns the forms is comprised of people from organizations that provide a variety of services to the homeless.
  • The HMIS has been used successfully to respond to a wide variety of public policy needs, as well as planning, reporting, and evaluation at both the provider and the government levels. The city routinely uses HMIS data to complete HUD's Annual Progress Report forms and annual reporting for other grants received, as well as to provide support for various community development plans.
  • The HMIS uses Microsoft Access for the development of the forms and the database, making it a highly flexible and simple system that does not require ongoing consultant support to modify and update.
  • Spokane's system can be implemented and maintained at a lower cost than a more technologically complex system. Still, the database accommodates a wide range of sophistication among participating organizations.

Capabilities of the System

Using HMIS, Spokane can generate statistics like these, which were gathered for calendar year 2001:

  • 8,817 individuals and 5,989 households were homeless during 2001.
  • 6,074 homeless adults, 311 youth living independently, and 2,432 children were counted.
  • 2,244 homeless individuals represented ethnic or racial minorities. Native Americans constituted the greatest percentage of homeless individuals by ethnicity.
  • 4,248 households did not report income or reported having no income, 524 received Technical Assistance for Needy Families or Assistance for Families with Dependent Children, and 356 households were employed.
  • 417 homeless households reported having served in the military.

In addition to demographic information, Spokane's HMIS provides housing, employment, education, training, health care, and employment exit and outcome data that can be used by community planners, government officials, and funders.

Measuring homelessness has traditionally been either incomplete or largely anecdotal. The Spokane Human Services Department has taken a large step in counting the homeless and quantifying poverty in their region-the first step toward understanding the needs of this community and providing appropriate services to help them out of homelessness and into a more stable situation.

For more information, contact: Kimberley McCollim, Human Services Assistant, city of Spokane Human Services Department, (509) 625-6130, kmccollim@spokanecity.org

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