There are big changes coming to homeless services in the Seattle/King County community, and if all goes well, clients won’t notice at all.
Things will move a little smoother, clients will get matched with services within the entire “continuum of care” — fed speak for a regional body that coordinates housing and services for homeless — and policymakers will be armed with more information with which to make decisions for the benefit of all.
If it sounds far-fetched and utopian, it may well be. But that’s the potential of two new systems that will be coming online in King County that officials hope will match individuals and families to the resources they need quickly and efficiently.
Starting April 1 — no joke — the City of Seattle will hand over control of the area’s Safe Harbors Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), essentially a database of homeless people’s contacts with service providers, to King County. Included in the package are federal funds used to run the previous system as well as $135,000 in operating funds from City Hall.
Although the information is the same, the system will look different — all previous records have been switched over to Bitfocus, Inc.’s software called Clarity Human Services, a system built from the ground up for the coordination of homeless services.
The Washington State Commerce Department chose Bitfocus after a competitive bidding process which King County adopted as part of a “follow-on contracting,” meaning that the county could use the state’s decision without conducting its own bid.
The county already holds several human services databases including those for public health, criminal justice, chemical dependence and mental health, so it seemed natural to include HMIS, said Mark Putnam, director of All Home King County, a coalition of homeless service providers and government agencies.
At the same time, All Home is developing an effort called Coordinated Entry for All, effectively a standardized intake process that will allow providers anywhere in the county to connect clients willing to share their personal information with resources across the continuum of care.
This exists for homeless veterans, families and young people aged between 18 and 25, but not for homeless adults, who are expected to be covered by spring 2016.
Clients are asked to give identifying information and answer a series of questions about how long they’ve been homeless. In doing so, it’s possible to know whether or not the services they receive get them into permanent housing and keep them there.
Participation is voluntary — clients still receive services if they choose not to participate — but the benefits go beyond simple data collection, said Sola Plumacher, strategic advisor with the city of Seattle’s Human Services Department.
“It’s lowering the bars,” Plumacher said. “Folks don’t want to repeat their story over and over and sign that consent form over and over.”
The two systems will not roll out simultaneously. The HMIS system is expected to launch on April 1, and All Home put out a call on March 17 for five regional access points for Coordinated Entry.
Eventually, however, the two will work together to increase the amount of data in the county and access to it.
“In the new world order, Coordinated Entry will be part of and built into the HMIS platform,” Putnam said. “That allows us to use HMIS to connect people to housing because open and available housing will all be within a single database.
“That simplifies things for users at the provider level and at the more systems level as we’re looking at data outcomes.”
Rarely, however, is there a shift of this magnitude that doesn’t result in losers as well as winners.
Officials acknowledge concerns within the provider community of getting clients referred to them for housing and other services that they’ve never had contact with before, or of changes in funding based on the data that comes out of the system.
Although there is a possibility, Plumacher said, that’s not what Coordinated Entry is about.
“We look at allocating resources to programs through a continual approach,” she said. “It might be a portion of an evaluation component, but it’s not a decision maker in and of itself.”
There’s also a human component to the change.
Seven employees worked on Seattle’s Safe Harbors program, but their jobs did not transition to the county. Half have found other jobs within City Hall.