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How A Scathing City Audit Put A Spotlight On The Challenges Of A Homeless Database


In a scathing report released last week, a Dallas auditor criticized the city’s response to its growing homeless problem, saying city officials have done a poor job keeping track of the agencies that are tasked with helping the homeless.

The lengthy audit found that the data system used to track homelessness in the city is inefficient and incomplete. It also points out that there is no oversight of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, or MDHA, which is the independent nonprofit that oversees the city’s homeless-relief efforts.

Ultimately, those issues have led to lost dollars – including a reduction of $1.1 million in federal grants in 2016 – and a homeless problem that doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

That all prompted a stern response from City Councilmember Scott Griggs last week, during a City Council meeting to renew a funding contract with the city’s largest homeless shelter: The Bridge.

“MDHA is failing,” he said.” They are in crisis, and to me, they are not acknowledging it. We need changes in the leadership. We need changes in the board.”

Several other councilmembers echoed that sentiment.

The homeless alliance’s president and CEO, though, says she’s not going anywhere. Cindy Crain, who is also a member of KERA’s community advisory board, takes issue with how those particular councilmembers and the audit characterized the work she’s done since she came to Dallas from Tarrant County in 2015.

“We don't do this work at City Hall; we do it in hundreds of meetings a year. We continually publish performance metrics, demand metrics and a housing priority list,” she said. “We’ve completely in two and a half years transformed the homeless response system to a very data-driven, with-evidence transparent system. So I’m not sure why the city read all that work and still thought that nothing had changed and that MDHA was the core fault.”

More data needed 

The chief point of contention here is what’s called the Homeless Management Information System – often referred to as an HMIS. Homeless shelters and service providers are required, under federal law, to put data into that system, like number of beds, number of clients, names, age and housing status.

Crain said homeless service providers need to do that to receive funding, and the city needs that data to know who needs help and how to help them.

“We may be a strong performing continuum of care, but we don’t know it because we’ve not had the data to measure it,” Crain said.

That’s because getting all 38 homeless service agencies across the Dallas area to plug in their data has been challenging. The audit found that the system, as of 2016, had only about a third of the info it should have on emergency shelters. The Bridge, for example, has said it couldn’t input its data and was therefore “pushed to the brink of temporary closure” twice in 2017, according to the audit.

The shelter’s Chief Operating Officer Sam Merten said in a statement: “We are pleased that the auditors articulated how the implementation of a new Homeless Management Information System and decision to withhold millions of dollars in funding because of HMIS-related issues beyond our control caused significant challenges for our organization.”

This all might sound a bit arcane, but it’s important to understand how an HMIS translates to the kind of solutions city officials want to see. A comprehensive homeless database, when there is enough data, tracks the occupancy rates of area shelters, housing status, race, age, length of stay in shelters and employment among numerous other metrics.

“Sometimes I go out and drive around the encampments, and I’ll meet someone and I’ll ask for their name and everything. I’ll open up the HMIS, look up that client and say, ‘I need to call that case manager,’ and just try to tie things together,” Crain said. “So all the way down to the client, to the project, to the caseload for an individual case manager, an agency to an entire system of care is the goal – to be able to see 'Are we moving people? Are people moving?'”

All that data is important in a city, where affordable housing is harder to come by and more people are sleeping on the streets every year.

The MDHA responded to the audit with updated numbers. It said since the alliance launched a new, more comprehensive HMIS in April of this year, participation from emergency shelters has gone from 30 to 57 percent. From 2013-2014, before Crain came to the MDHA, there were no numbers. Now, the group expects it to hit 86 percent soon for emergency shelter participation.

Nadia Chandler-Hardy is the city’s chief of community services. She says the city needs participation to be at 100 percent.

“The HMIS really helps us tell the story,” she said. “And if we do not have that full participation, we can’t tell the story correctly and that really can be a hindrance to future funding and fundraising and building out an effective system.”

Both MDHA and city staff agree the HMIS needs to work and more agencies need to get on board. The problem is no one can force that to happen or make it happen as quickly as some of the harshest critics would like. 

Dallas City Audit of Homeless Response System Effectiveness

Former KERA staffer Stephanie Kuo is an award-winning radio journalist who worked as a reporter and administrative producer at KERA, overseeing and coordinating editorial content reports and logistics for the Texas Station Collaborative – a statewide news consortium including KERA, KUT in Austin, Houston Public Media and Texas Public Radio in San Antonio.