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ACTION ALERT: Report the Truth to Congress on Homelessness: Privacy Rights! Fair Funding! True Stats!

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness, Policy Advocacy

HMIS Action Alert
(published January 25, 2012)

HUD must only and always report the truth to Congress on Homelessness. Take action now! HUD is accepting comments on final HMIS rules until February 7, 2012. The rules will determine how & when homeless people will be counted, privacy rights, funding levels for local shelters and services. HUD needs to hear from YOU & all local communities. We must balance the needs of the social service community with the rights of those seeking help.

What is the issue?
HUD is seeking comments on the rules for collecting information from homeless individuals at the shelters and aggregating that information to deliver statistics to Congress. Comments due to HUD by February 7, 2012.

Why should you respond?
The final rules will determine the privacy rights for those seeking help. The numbers collected and the outcomes could determine the funding levels for local shelters. The experiences with HMIS at the  local level are important.

What are possible outcomes?
HMIS can be costly to implement locally. A goal of HMIS is to balance the needs of the social service community with the rights of those seeking support. Overall, HMIS should provoke greater incite into solving homelessness.

To respond to the new proposed rules:
Send Comments using the federal eRulemaking Website: http://www.regulations.gov

Docket Number FR-5475-P-01 Title: Homeless Management Information Systems Requirements

Save a copy of the body of your comments and send them to info@nationalhomeless.org for our records at the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Background:
Please use this outline as a basis for submitting comments to HUD regarding the proposed rules for HMIS that were released in  December. It is important to add your local statistics, experiences, and examples to augment this list.

Comments are due to HUD by February 7, 2012 and can be submitted to www.regulations.gov by using the docket
and title of the proposed rules. The National Coalition is urging local advocates, social service providers and those experiencing homelessness to submit comments on these new rules. We believe that HMIS can be a huge burden on a small non-profit trying to provide services to those struggling with their housing, but can have great rewards in coordinating services, reducing paperwork, and providing high quality referrals to those experiencing homelessness.

Here are some comments that you can use in submitting a response to these rules. We urge you to include local activities and examples to support these comments. We believe that HUD officials will listen to local caretakers of the homeless population and your concerns over HMIS.

Comments Regarding HMIS
(Our local group) has accepted the use of HMIS to improve the delivery of services to those experiencing homelessness, but we do not support the use of HMIS as a system to report the extent of homelessness to Congress. We have seen that the statistics are often mistaken for a count of the total number of people homeless in a city or county. No matter how many qualifiers are included in the national Annual Homeless Assessment Report, both elected officials and the media mismanage the data as a complete count of homelessness. There is such wide disparity in how this data is collected that there is no way to compare among service provider and certainly between
cities this case management data. We believe that a voluntary case management system would be worthwhile to collect data, but a mandatory system that attempts to collect an unduplicated count is nearly impossible in such a fractured system.

In a period of tightening budgets and federal cuts, we believe that these resources could be redirected to basic human services or housing assistance instead of the administrative services of counting people. We see the value of one electronic case management system overseen by HUD used by every social service provider in a community. If the eventual goal is to arrive at the number of homeless people in a city or state as stated by Congress, we believe that HUD would receive much better information by funding local experts to conduct a census in representative cities. We believe that local universities or foundations in various size representative cities, suburbs, and rural jurisdictions could develop an accurate estimate of the number of homeless people and then they could use that data to extrapolate a national estimate of homelessness.

That being said we do have concerns about the proposed rules that were released in December 2011.

  1. It should be made clear that there is not a minimum participation rate by clients for the social service provider. The user who is experiencing a housing emergency and refuses to enter data should not result in a penalty or an issue with the performance standards for the local social service provider. [It would be good
    to add a local example of this issue from your community]. If a user refuses to enter their social security number or other personal identifying information that should not result in a reduction in public support or a sanction for the social service provider. The shelter or meal program should be held harmless if their clients decide to withhold personal required in the HMIS database.
  2. We believe that the security standards should emphatically and unequivocally state that law enforcement agencies should not have access to personal identifying information contained within the HMIS data without a warrant signed by a member of the judicial branch of government. We understand that some  communities have the local sheriff maintains the HMIS data.
  3. We believe that the requirement for every publicly funded homeless service provider contribute data to a central management system is an unfunded mandate from the federal government. There should be dedicated resources separate from the Emergency Solutions Grant or Continuum funding to implement this project. [It would be good to add local information on the number of staff dedicated strictly to entering data at your
    facility.]
  4. We believe that there are a number of state privacy laws that make it difficult for local agencies to submit data under these proposed rules. [Many states have strict controls over the use of social security numbers when accessing government services, which could present a conflict for the local provider who also receives federal continuum funding. If you know that this is the case in your state, please site specific local or state law.]
  5. We believe that the HMIS security standards should be subject to HUD oversight and public comment. The security standards, local policies and procedures and grievance process should be posted on an easily accessible publicly available website. Those experiencing homelessness should be able to submit comment
    and have those comments responded to by the local HMIS Lead in an easy and accessible manner.
  6. There are no protections for clients outlined for improper usage or improper release of data especially privacy violations by an HMIS Lead organization. We believe that if there is a break down in privacy at the local level and the policies and procedures break down there should be a way for an individual seeking assistance or currently utilizing a Continuum funded program to file a grievance with a government agency with regard to HMIS. In addition, with the exchange of data among local providers and the transient nature of the population, it is often difficult for a person experiencing homelessness to determine where a security
    breach originated. We believe that a government agency should be the final arbiter of a complaint especially if there are repeated problems with the protection of privacy at the local level. This is especially important if the HMIS Lead organizations are also permitted to be collectors of personal and private client data as service providers as well.
  7. Since this data is being used by the public and Congress for planning and local decision making on the proper allocation of resources, there should be a way for advocates or the public to challenge the data’s accuracy. There should be a way for the HUD to accept challenges to the unduplicated numbers submitted
    as either a significant undercount or an over-count of the actual number of homeless people in a community as is policy for the US Census. These comments should be included with the release of the Annual Homeless Assessment Report.

California Bill Would Help Protect Homeless People from Hate Crimes

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Civil Rights, Hate Crimes, Policy Advocacy

The National Coalition for the Homeless firmly believes in protecting homeless people against hate crimes committed by housed persons simply because of the victim’s real or perceived homelessness. Through legislation, the state of California has been working to pass important legislation in order to advance this effort. Assembly Bill 312, introduced by State Representative Bonnie Lowenthal (D-54), is being considered by the State Legislature, and just two days ago it passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would specify that crimes against the homeless rendered because of the person’s real or perceived homeless status would be considered a crime discriminatory in nature so victims would have the ability to sue in civil court for increased reparations. In short, the bill would add homelessness as a characteristic to the Ralph Civil Rights Act, which now protects from hate crimes those targeted for factors such as race, sexual orientation, and political affiliation, but not housing situation.

History

AB 2706, introduced last year by Bonnie Lowenthal, was a very similar law, which last year the California Assembly and Senate passed, but Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed it. He stated, “Poverty unlike race, gender, national origin and disability, is not a suspect classification” (see Senate Judiciary Committee bill analysis below). However, under California law, political affiliation was already protected on the same level as race, religion… in the Ralph Civil Rights Act. Political affiliation, like homelessness, tends not to be an inherent characteristic like race or religion, so homelessness should be a protected status as well.

One of the reasons the homeless should have further protection is because of the demonstrated necessity to it. Prior to AB 2706, California in 2001 passed SR 18 which required an examination of hate crimes against the homeless. The results of it, along with our report of “Hate Crimes Against the Homeless,” pointed to many ruthless hate crimes against the homeless. Because of this, along with Democratic Governor Brown in power, it seems more hopeful for the bill to be ratified this year.

Process

In order for the bill to go into effect, it must pass through all of the various levels in the California State Assembly and Senate. The bill has already passed through the Assembly, and two days ago the bill passed, by a 3-2 vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee referred the bill back to the Senate Appropriations Committee, where it now awaits passage. If this happens, the bill must then pass the Senate floor and Assembly floor in order to go to Governor Brown. Last year, AB 2706 passed the Senate with a 21-13 vote and a 51-26 vote in the Assembly.

Effect

The bill, if passed, would not only help to increase reparations for homeless people who are attacked, but it would also serve as a deterrent to those housed individuals committing the crimes. Though some debate exists over whether violence against the homeless should be put on the same plane as violence against homosexuals or people of a certain race, we believe that crimes against the homeless, committed because they are homeless, deserve to be treated more seriously than crimes without aggravating circumstances.

Take Action

Read the bill and follow its status.

Read the Senate Judiciary Committee bill analysis from June 7, 2011.

Contact members of the Senate Appropriations Committee about the bill.

Laura Epstein, Staff

“Voluntary Hunger in Protest of Involuntary Hunger”

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness, Civil Rights, Policy Advocacy

By: Brian Stone

Today, it seems as though there is normalized acceptance of a segment of our population not having enough food or shelter. The proof is last week’s budget cuts which will push those without food, homes and medical care into deeper despair. It is important that we remember what hangs in the balance. In the past, the anti-hunger and poverty movement has responded in a multitude of ways. One of those is known as a hunger fast (or strike) to draw public awareness to the issues the poor face and create policy change.

In the 1980’s Michael Stoops, Director of Community Organizing at NCH, and Mitch Snyder, a life-time advocate for the homeless, fasted on the steps of the Capitol Building to pressure President Reagan into signing the first legislative protection for homeless people, which eventually became the McKinney-Vento Act. This act provided blanket protection and assistance to the homeless. Mitch and other advocates also fasted to get the federal government to transform an abandoned federal building in D.C. into a shelter for the homeless. Out of this fast the Community for Creative Non-Violence (CCNV) emerged, and remains D.C.’s largest shelter.

Former Ambassador Tony Hall has an unwavering commitment to poor people and poverty issues. While in Congress, Hall frequently authored legislation with expansive protections for the poor and vulnerable. In 1993, Hall, who was an Ohio Congressman at the time, was dismayed by Congress’s decision to end the bi-partisan House Select Committee on Hunger. This resulted in his going on a 22-day hunger fast. He felt that Congress had lost sight of the issues that our most vulnerable face. The outcome of this fast was substantial. Congress agreed to fund the Congressional Hunger Center, of which I am honored to be a 17th Class fellow; and the World Bank pledged to support efforts to end world hunger.

Eighteen years later Hall feels that Congress has once again lost sight of the plight of the poor, those who stand to bare the brunt of the budget cuts. On March 28, 2011, Hall embarked on another fast to protest the current budget cuts. If you would like to join Tony Hall or get more information on the fast, check out: http://hungerfast.org/.

We must remember that people’s lives hang in the balance. What is more important than cuts made in the name of lowering the deficit is the impact that those cuts will have on a large group of people. Balancing the budget at the expense of the poor and vulnerable is not the answer. This will only prove to further complicate the lives of those who currently don’t have enough, with the likely end result being eventual increases in social support programs.

Hunger fasts, like Michael’s, Mitch’s, Tony’s and many others, have provided protections for the vulnerable and changed policy in the U.S. The time is now. Will you join the circle of protection around the most vulnerable members of our society?

Brian is a Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Civil Rights division at the National Coalition for the Homeless.

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