Agency boosts accuracy of data on homelessness

Agency boosts accuracy of data on homelessness

An accurate count of the homeless population has eluded city human service agencies for decades.

The District of Columbia's Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness reports aggregate figures, said Ann Oliva, the director of programs. 'But some of the same people keep popping up for multiple services,' Oliva said.

The trick is to not count them twice.

With a yearly budget of $32 million from the city government and the Housing and Urban Development Department, the agency runs shelters and provides case management services for mental health and substance abuse.

Last year Congress told HUD to develop systems to track homeless people as they move through the services network.

Congress said that by 2004, the count must be 'unduplicated''meaning each homeless person is counted only once in every jurisdiction that receives money from HUD.

'A lot of our partnership agencies haven't stepped into the computer age,' Oliva said. 'We were doing analysis by hand.'

After testing several software packages for case management and human services, Oliva and her team chose browser-based ServicePoint client-tracking software from Bowman Internet Systems LLC of Shreveport, La.

Caseworkers and agency managers at first worried about client confidentiality and security, Oliva said. 'As soon as we said the word 'Internet,' some people didn't trust it,' she said.

One more for luck

So representatives of Bowman Internet Systems came to Washington to add an extra layer of security.

ServicePoint already had Secure Sockets Layer encryption and firewall features, said Robert Bowman, the company president, 'but it wasn't enough.' The company decided on an encryption tool, Protegrity from Protegrity Inc. of Stamford, Conn., which protects data stored in databases.

Protegrity lets an organization encrypt only desired portions of a database'say, only Social Security numbers, said Peter Nilsson, Protegrity's senior vice president. Written in C++ and Java, Protegrity uses standard algorithms such as the Data Encryption Standard, Nilsson said.
That sealed the deal for Oliva and the city partnership.

'Protegrity was a big selling point,' she said. 'If agency directors don't feel the data is secure, they won't use it.'

No interference

The partnership's 283 users run ServicePoint under Microsoft Windows 9x or Win 2000 with Netscape Navigator or Internet Explorer 6.0 or higher versions. The Protegrity layer is unnoticeable, Oliva said, and 'hasn't slowed us down at all.'

Client records reside in a Microsoft Access database, but ServicePoint and Protegrity also work with IBM DB2, Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle and Sybase databases, Nilsson said.

Oliva said homelessness is on the rise in Washington because of the faltering economy. Since October, the agency has added 3,050 client records to the database.

'There's been a 63 percent increase in the number of families coming to homeless shelters in the past year,' she said. 'We have one central intake facility for family shelter, so we know we get an accurate count of families.'

About the Author

Trudy Walsh is a senior writer for GCN.

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