Better By-Name Lists

This week's blog comes from David Tweedie on the OrgCode team ([email protected]):

If you're a street outreach worker, you've likely struggled to locate people referred to you through your community's Coordinated Entry system.  You have their name, and where they were last surveyed, but knowing where someone surfaced two or twelve or twenty days ago seems a lot less helpful than where they're staying now.

If you're part of the Continuum of Care governance board or leadership, you've likely looked at your Coordinated Entry system's average length of time from identification of homelessness until housing match, or from housing match to move-in, and wondered whether that represented the best your community could achieve.

Communities where quantifying the most medically vulnerable people with longest histories of homelessness happens easily, and the length of time required to enter permanent housing happens fastest, have two key things in common: they've moved from multiple by-name lists to one, and from where someone once completed a survey to where people reside in real-time.

This requires two shifts:

When we're asked to account for people who meet the federal definition of chronic homelessness, or for veterans, or youth, or families, we may begin with a "low tech" solution outside of our seemingly impenetrable community-wide data sharing system.  When people enter our system, we enter their information manually into a spreadsheet.  When they leave, they are removed, by hand.

Maybe you're the staff responsible for that process, wondering whether manual data entry into spreadsheets represents the best that your government-funded data collection offers when it comes to by-name lists.  (Spoiler alert: IT IS NOT.)  What forces us to fix the system temporarily addressed by this patchwork solution is when we're asking to cross reference specific populations or time periods.  Of everyone who is a veteran, how many have also experienced chronic homelessness?  Of unaccompanied youth, how many have also been served as a member of a family?  When the answer looks more like a sigh of exhaustion and "those are different lists" than a quickly applied filter, "good enough" might need to approach just plain "good."  Dare we dream of even greatness?

One by-name list that accounts for people in real-time -- as they change providers, demographics and engagement -- remains the best practice for data driven decision-making.  If nothing else, by 2017 we should be able to easily know the names and locations of the people we have the privilege to engage and permanently house.  One poor staff, diligently updating this information into an Excel spreadsheet, is not that.  Neither is waiting days (or weeks!) to obtain this information.  Difficult to obtain reports are a megaphone telling you the community data system is failing.

But we need not just someone's name but also where they're currently staying.  It's not particularly helpful to direct street outreach to locate someone based on where they were surveyed six days, weeks or months ago.  How many times have we heard someone's years long struggle through homelessness, only to see that they hadn't yet been surveyed?  For the purpose of our by-name list, they remained invisible, because our by-name list only contained people with VI-SPDATs.

When our by-name lists have completed surveys as a common denominator rather than everyone currently experiencing homelessness, regardless of survey status, we're left to comb cold, tired lists of long passed locations rather than where they reside right now.

And the by-name list is just the first step!  With one-by name list of people experiencing homelessness in real-time, we can then define our community's priorities to build a priority list of those we're actively working to house.  Our by-name list represents the biggest possible universe: everyone experiencing homelessness.  A subset of that list -- our priority list -- represents a significantly smaller universe of people who have consented to our assistance, completed required surveys, collected essential documentation for housing, and now engage staff to locate units and enter permanent housing with supports.

By definition, everyone (and everything) can't be a priority.  Of the dozens, hundreds or thousands of people on our by-name list, who represents our community's first priority to house -- people with the longest histories of homelessness?  The medically frail?  Those living and sleeping outdoors?  Veterans?  Youth?  Of two equally vulnerable people both experiencing chronic homelessness, who gets access to a resource if only enough exists to serve one person?  As we drill down on our by-name list to identify, and then progressively engage, people who represent our community's priority populations, we secure the documentation required for housing, at which point they represent our smaller priority list of people we're actively working to house.

This community measure of our progress -- to what extent are we ending homelessness? -- should be accessible, and not just to the HMIS or HIFIS Lead Agency!  For those who've consented to the data sharing process, everyone from the case manager who sees the new keys enter the lock of the first home secured in years, to the Executive Director of that agency and the funders of that process can see where our Coordinated Entry system succeeds and where we have obstacles to overcome together.  They can run this report themselves -- or even have it waiting in their HMIS inbox as they begin each morning.  Who has been housed, how long that took, and who is returning should be easily accessible from the very by-name list that drives that process.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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