Homeless tracking system derailed after city failed to pay vendor

Homeless tracking system derailed after city failed to pay vendor
File Image of homeless tents at Kakaako
File Image of homeless tents at Kakaako

Once a year, homeless outreach workers and volunteers hit the street to count the homeless.

This "point-in-time" count, which happened in January, provides a snapshot of what's happening on that day in that community, but it's far from the whole picture.

To get a better handle on the state's homeless crisis, service providers rely on utilization numbers -- the total number of people who used homeless shelter and outreach services in a given year.

But because the city didn't pay the vendor responsible for the system, those utilization numbers haven't been available for more than a year.

The problem comes as lawmakers, the governor and providers are grappling to tackle a persistent homeless crisis. The lack of utilization data -- how many people are falling in and out of homelessness in a given year -- is like flying blind.

Until October 2014, Hawaii's Homeless Management Information System, which tracked utilization data, was considered one of the best in the country.

But it all fell apart when the programmer who built and managed the system for more than a decade quit.

The programmer said he hadn't been paid by the city in so long the stress put him the hospital. The city admits it didn't process his payments for months because it was short-staffed.

An entirely new tracking system had to be purchased in a rush.

"Time-wise it's never ideal to have a switch kind of be forced by something like that," said Scott Fuji, executive director of PHOCUSED, a consortium of social service nonprofits.

Fifteen years worth of information from the old system had to be loaded into the new one. Service providers were forced to keep some records on paper.

"We had numerous requests from policy makers at all levels including community members," Fuji said. "Not having as much access to data as we wanted did hamper that."

And the transition is far from complete.

To this day getting your hands on a lot of that crucial information is time-consuming and expensive because reports that used to be free now come with a hefty price tag.

Lawmakers say the point-in-time count, which also had problems this year, is untrustworthy data -- and unacceptable to use for decision-making.

"We need a better system where we know exactly how many people are being serviced and how many people are on the street," said state Rep. Sylvia Luke, House Finance Committee chairwoman. "Track them until the final goal of permanent housing."

Luke says if you can't accurately count the homeless it's impossible serve them efficiently and that's a waste of taxpayer money.

"If we're trying to provide services for the homeless population we better make sure it's being used properly and effectively," Luke said.

Since the city's failure to pay the vendor, officials from the city Department of Community Services says it has added three new positions, which form the Homeless Initiatives Group, to provide additional resources to manage its homeless service contracts.

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