*Presentation from Data Collection & COVID-19: Learning from the Field Webinar for National Alliance to End Homelessness

These are stressful times not only for the clients but for our case managers and HMIS and data teams who are not only working with the community but also caring for their families and in many cases being affected directly by COVID themselves.


Making such rapid changing decisions during a crisis is big work and can be frustrating. I want you to know we are all right there with you. just know your work is not in vain and all the communication and collection of data in any form matters. All small actions make a big impact and could affect how COVID-19 affects homelessness. This is something often I must tell myself because we aren’t working in our normal capacities with so many moving pieces anything can change, and you have to adapt.

I know some days it feels like COVID-19 data is IMPOSSIBLE because something new is happening every day, but it is possible. It is all about knowing the DNA of your community. For me in any segment of data collection and workflows it’s important I understand the community not only the clients but the individuals collecting the data. You want a system that runs smoothly for your size as well as the unique systems that are currently intact. A couple facts about my community. I’m in the State of Louisiana which consist of 7 CoCs, I represent the HMIS Lead at Via Link for Orleans and Jefferson parish UNITY CoC.


So, a few questions to ask yourself about your community.
Who are the key players? Are you currently collaborating effectively with the CITY/STATE/ SHELTERS/ Business community etc.? We need to always understand who is involved and how they can help this data come to life and make a difference. For my community, the main players are the Unity the CoC, The City of New Orleans, Louisiana Services Network Data Consortium and Service Providers. These are the main users and funders for us currently. What makes your community unique from other communities? Not two communities are alike, so what is different. So, for example, In New Orleans we have a limited sharing system, in which only basic client profile information is shared between projects. In New Orleans, not just in disaster, but overall we normally have to do things a little different for our region, because we have a higher percentage of the population within the state, a high number of users with a diverse background, and different makeup of the system. In 2019, 2,941 People were Homeless on a given night in Louisiana. Also, in 2019, 1,179 People was Homeless on a given night in New Orleans. In our community, we have 260 end users, which is the highest in the state and represent over 130 programs. So, we are always working to adapt and make things work for our community.


Another question, how are those unique characteristics affecting data in negative and positive ways? Where are we excelling and failing and how can we use what we know to make COVID data work for us. In my community things are always changing rapidly not just during emergencies, so we are used to working with so many changing pieces. Initially things happen so quickly we changed the workflow almost daily, trying to figure out how to manage and know exactly where all the clients are going or moving between hotels. Now currently we are amid a more stable setup that works for our Continuum that collects triage information, demographics and then moves our most vulnerable through what I call Disaster Coordinated Entry. Some cons are currently different groups are collecting data differently, so this is a challenge we are working on to get everything unified. Also sharing constraints, the way our CoC and others share information is different so making sure to have a solid sharing plan in place can be time consuming and put constraints on what data we receive. A pro for us is this is a chance for us to bring state-wide collaboration to the next level as well as once we get all systems on the same page, extensive data around the state on our homeless.


Next, who are the case managers/ staff collecting and inputting the data? Who will be leading this charge in COVID data? What do you know about this group and how can you leverage that information to help them be efficient and complete the goal? The big question is what is your community communication infrastructure? How are you relaying most information about the disaster, HMIS, etc.? This will be the best way to inform and begin buy-in for COVID Data. For example, most information for us is disseminated through the local CoC Newsletter, HMIS Newsletter, Contract Managers Communication, and Service Provider Meetings.


Once you understand your community you can begin thinking about building a workflow. The first question to ask yourself is how can we make it feasible for our community? I say this a lot, but it is important. There are lots of great plans out there, extraordinary workflows, etc. but is it realistic for you. You must build something that will get the job done in the end. Always remember there is no one size fits all. For us that means developing a workflow that was built around the outreach team working with the street population going into hotels, the team working with potential cases of COVID of the homeless population and working with shelters. You must understand them all and make them work together. This leads to the question of what procedures would collect the data but not put stress on the individuals doing the work. You must make it effective and easy for those people.


The last part that pretty much ties into the other two are getting creative. Now that you know your community, you can start looking at what other communities are doing. This is an opportunity to keep your community in mind and find those techniques you can utilize for your community. It’s also an opportunity for you to look at what has worked in the past for you and how you can add that into the fold. For me, coming from a city with natural disasters a lot, we always have our pulse on triage and developing rapid data solutions. For us, as my director likes to remind me, keeping things simple aid to build helpful assessments and work around issues in your community.
So, it may be overwhelming, but it is all possible.


COVID Data will add value to what we are doing to aid homelessness and end homelessness. The biggest value is remembering the cost of inaction can result in service disruption. We must collect data now to understand the effect of COVID-19 to allow us to evaluate our services and housing situations. Acting now would change the impact of a six-month interruption we are currently experiencing and will continue to experience during this time. COVID Data could help anticipate and begin planning stages for the next waves. As you know our health care system around the country has been overwhelmed but collecting COVID data we can help review clients and not overwhelm the health care system by providing referrals. Also, as I’m sure you heard the threat of a second wave of COVID-19 that could happen in the fall. This data could help us plan how to help our clients rapidly move through the system, who are the most vulnerable and provide the right services to help this pandemic. there is a possibility for an increase in homelessness due to the continued rising number of unemployed due to COVID. This type of DATA can be research to help navigate individuals to the right services to prevent or shorten the length of homelessness due to a pandemic. Overall, it’s an opportunity to understand the demand during an emergency put on our shelters, programming, and even how it shaped our coordinated system. Once we understand, we can further plan and be proactive in future events.
One of the biggest values in my opinion is the fact we have an opportunity to zone in on the most vulnerable homeless living in a place not meant for habitation. In many cases, these are the people you normally can’t get to come into a shelter and who we have limited access to and data on. This could allow an opportunity to learn more about the most vulnerable street population and how we can work with them better in the future. For example, in our community we have moved many of the street population into hotels, whom many are individuals who do not go into shelters and in fact don’t have a client number even. Once the CoC found giving them semi-private rooms was a way to keep them indoors and safe we have been able to house even more. This is a time to begin triaging these individuals and potentially bringing them through the coordinated entry as this is a chance for them to be more comfortable and open to sharing.

As we understand the value one big concern, I’m sure for most communities is privacy. I think there are a few areas you should consider and review to ease your concerns. Look at your data-sharing agreements? Are these agreements up to date? Is its clear what information can be shared? If it isn’t this is the time to get that taken care of. We want to make sure we have a clear understanding of what can be shared. In many cases, such as my community sharing agreements are stricter than even what is detailed by HUD if working within HMIS. Once you understand your sharing agreement, it’s a good idea to take a look at COVID DATA Requests. Has your community deemed specific agencies privilege to COVID assessments/information? If so, you need to decide how this will be handled. For a community with strict sharing such as myself, I developed a COVID Data Request form, that allows for community partners to request specific COVID data after approval from the CoC. They don’t get access to the system, just client case manager information. Lastly, make sure you understand the HMIS Privacy and Security Standards.


Lastly, getting your staff to buy into data collection. I think the number one thing to always consider no matter what the situation is, do you understand your staff? Have you been actively communicating with them during this pandemic? When I say actively, are you listening to their concerns about the homeless, HMIS, and even their new lives? Do you understand what are some of the effects on their productivity and work currently? You need to understand them and listen to them and ensure they understand you care. Also, does your staff know what is going on locally? I think often staff is last to know or only given small details about the plan. In a pandemic especially I think it’s important that they understand what’s going on with your rapid response, issues, and more. The more they know, the more they buy into how to make this work and help clients throughout this pandemic. This leads to the possibility of you building the workflows with them. You should not leave them out, they are doing this work, figuring out what works best for them, helps them to be more involved. They understand the realities and can help you develop an effective plan. We like to use our high functioning end users locally who we know will give feedback. We let them test out new workflows to see how everything flows for them. It helps us to get an on the ground viewpoint.
Also building a training plan that works for your diverse group. The most important thing to buy is understanding and training. Developing training that works for different levels of technical skills is important. The easier it is for everyone to understand the more likely they will be ready to collect this data. Doing things such as creating easy to follow COVID Data Training videos such as Ohio accomplished is perfect. It’s easy to follow and on demand access. Lastly, Information. Pretty much what I said this whole section. Buy In is all about providing information. The more they know and understand the importance of the more buy-in you get.

The rapid global spread of COVID-19 has brought about big data analysis and tools front and center to begin monitoring and reducing the impact of this pandemic around the country.


Not only does this provide an opportunity to reduce the impact but also a chance to take a closer look at our homeless population and how we can use data to further not only their safety but the ways we understand and navigate them to services.