HMIS Data Standards: What Is Changing and Why

On April 19, 2019 the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) made available the new HMIS Data Standards that are intended to go into effect on October 1, 2019, though full implementation is not expected to be completed until April 1, 2020. The new standards are intended to promote and expand coordinated entry (CE) within the Continuums of Care (CoC) that address homelessness in their community. But before we dive into what these changes are and why they are so important, let’s take a step back and look at the background.

What is HMIS Software?

HMIS stands for Homeless Management Information Systems. Homelessness is an ever-present challenge impacting individuals and communities everywhere. In the 1980’s, isolated groups across the country began using computers to track data for individuals experiencing homelessness in order to better understand, and therefore address, the underlying problems that these individuals faced. By the year 2000, the practice of using data to understand individuals and trends had spread across the country and the term HMIS had been coined.

In 2001, Congress mandated that all health and human service providers that were receiving funding from HUD must be utilizing a computer based HMIS in order to collect and utilize data. Though they did not endorse any specific HMIS vendor, HUD began a three-year process of developing data standards and in 2004 they released the first set of HMIS Data and Technical Standards. All providers are required to be in compliance with these published standards in order to be eligible for HUD funding.

Beyond just a requirement to achieve funding eligibility, HMIS applications have become a critical part of both understanding and addressing homelessness. HMIS data gives providers the tools required to track a wide variety of information on individual clients, allowing them to develop strategies based on the complete needs of the client instead of simply addressing symptoms. Because HMIS data is managed at a community level, it also allows diverse providers to coordinate and share information regarding common clients.

While tracking individuals, HMIS applications are also collecting information on communities. HMIS reporting can help providers and communities better understand how to improve their programs and approaches by looking at higher level data to identify trends and barriers that are common challenges among their clients.

What is a Continuum of Care?

A Continuum of Care, or CoC, is a community level organization that exists to facilitate coordination between all of the providers that address homelessness in a particular geographic region. A CoC area may cover a single city or county or be made up of multiple cities or counties. A heavily populated area may even be divided into multiple CoCs. According to HUD, a CoC should be made up of representatives from organizations that include government services, faith-based organizations, victim services advocates, school districts, mental health agencies, law enforcement, and any other organizations that regularly interact with the homeless population. One of the primary responsibilities of a CoC is to manage the local HMIS application so that all of the applicable providers can access and contribute to the data being collected for individuals and the community.

What is Coordinated Entry?

Similar to Care Coordination in other health and human services demographics, Coordinated Entry is an approach that allows providers to communicate and share data in order to identify and address the diverse needs of individual clients. This approach also allows for a “no wrong door” policy where clients can access resources from one provider and be assessed and referred to other needed resources from other providers across the CoC. Coordinated Entry programs are facilitated by CoCs using HMIS applications in order to collect and share the necessary data to make them function.

What is Changing?

The newly released FY 2020 HMIS Data Standards build on the HMIS standards that have been developed over the last fifteen years but add several new data elements which providers and vendors will be required to start using. The first two of these elements are designed specifically to enhance Coordinated Entry. The new CE Assessments Element is designed to be a flexible data element that allows providers to define their own assessment questions and then collect associated information such as dates, locations, and results. The CE Event Element allows providers to capture access and referral events in order to track both successful and unsuccessful events in Coordinated Entry. The intended goal of this second element is to allow CoCs to understand what strategies are and are not working and then use that information to improve their programs.

The third element that is being added in the new data standards is the Current Living Situation Element. This data element is meant to track where an individual is staying at any given time. As providers update this information each time they contact an individual client, the housing situation of that client can be tracked over time and help provide better insights into client needs.

Homelessness is a complex issue that individuals and communities face each and every day. But as communities utilize Continuums of Care, HMIS applications, and a Coordinated Entry approach, it allows providers that range from healthcare to housing to mental health to better address the specific needs of their clients. The new HMIS Data Standards are one more step towards refining a system that is designed to improve the lives of vulnerable individuals.

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