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Making The Grade

This is my first blog. Ever. I’m not ashamed to admit that don’t like to write, I’d rather look at graphs and bury myself in an excel spreadsheet all day than sit down and write something. So needless to say, when Zach told me to blog, eh some 3 months ago, I had a minor whining meltdown. “I don’t know what to say.” “I’m not creative.” “It will come off sounding like a term paper from college.” Therefore, I’m sure, by the time you’re reading this, it’s gone through no less than 3 or 4 revisions.


What I can tell you, and what most people compliment me on, is that I don’t like being “average” in my work or in my personal life. I want to discuss data (since it’s sort of what I do) and the need for it in our daily work with clients and the need for it in the grand scheme of ending homelessness. As we’ve rolled out that first official round of HMIS Report Cards and the Point-in-Time surveys started filtering in, the past few weeks have been a bit of a data discovery and I’m discovering that most folks don’t hold the same urgency and importance of data that I do.

In this round of HMIS Data Report Cards, the CoC got an average grade of C from our 50+ programs. So as I said earlier, I don’t like being average. Nor do I think we, as a CoC, should settle for average or mediocre in our service delivery OR in our data quality. Average will not end homelessness. A’s end homelessness. There are a lot of people out here with big hearts who claim to be doing good things and we hear about it all the time. The feel-good, heart-warming stories are good, but you need your data to show what you’re doing! There were as many agencies with F’s on this round of report cards as there were agencies with B’s. I don’t know about you, but I knew way more B athletes excelling in high school than F athletes who weren’t even allowed to play the game. This is what’s it all about folks: playing the game. When you don’t make the grade, you don’t get to play.

One of my favorite quotes about the use of data comes from Ann Oliva, Director of the SNAP Office at HUD as they prepared for the FY2013 funding. She said, “Focus relentlessly on results and on collecting and using quality data…better data is essential to doing more of what works and to stop doing what doesn’t.”

So when we started to question our data and why it essentially “sucks” or the lack thereof data, I heard this: “what matters is the people getting served, not the entry of the required data that numbers crunchers use to make decisions, helping the homeless guy is more important than entering the data.”

I saw this: 48% of our HMIS users have logged into the system in the past week. That’s less than half of our almost 200 end-users who are active in the system. Why are only ½ of the users actually using the system on a regular basis? This is supposed to make life easier for case managers AND clients. Seamless even.

I also discovered this: a federally mandated street outreach program in a large urban area has only inputted data on 6 clients. Six. Ever.

I discovered this: A community program trained in Point-in-Time data collection used an old form from 2013 to survey individuals on the night of the PIT, many, many, many PIT forms were incomplete, inaccurate, had hand-written additional answers, and even came from shelters and facilities that use HMIS. I initially thought those shelters did double work until I discovered that some haven’t been keeping up with their HMIS entry or aren’t even using HMIS at all, though should be.

Seeing results like these make us question what we do and the quality of how we’ve done it. Do we need to tighten up and streamline our trainings? Absolutely! Do we need to be more proactive in monitoring our data? You bet! But, we also need to instill in our providers the bigger picture: the why. That homeless guy never exists without the data to show him. And furthermore, your program never served him without the data to show. I’m starting to wonder if programs are just inadvertently saying “it’s cool if take my funding away.” Remember what Ms. Oliva said?

So how do we make the grade? How do we get to play the game? Data entry needs to be part of the daily job and daily interactions with clients. However, if I had a nickle for every time I heard in HMIS training, "I'm just not good with computers," I would probably be able to personally house every homeless person in WV. People experiencing homelessness are accustomed to having their information put into a computer. They go to the ER where the Registration Specialist puts their information into a computer. They go to the DMV where their license or ID is generated from a system. The cops pick them up, where the officer runs their ID through a computer then puts their picture into a database. 

WVCEH is fortunate that with our HMIS providers can assess someone who walks through the door with OrgCode’s SPDAT, know their acuity, determine their need for each program, and/or refer them to an appropriate program to better meet their needs? As a 30-something former case manager, this is a dream come true for me. I don’t have to pick up the phone and try to locate someone at an agency across town or even in another county, who may or may not be in his or her office when I call. I don’t have to use my own judgment or impart my values on this persons’ appropriateness for my program. I don’t even have to pick up a calculator (though I would like to) to calculate their acuity. HMIS will do this form me and tell me where this person best fits to most quickly solve their homelessness.

Computers are all around us and we need to stop being afraid of them and start using them to benefit what we are doing so we can make the grade and end homelessness!

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WV Coalition to End Homelessness | PO Box 4697, Bridgeport, WV 26330 | 304-842-9522 | info@wvceh.org | website by brickswithoutstraw