After Long Wait, Multnomah County Takes Big Step Toward Better Understanding Who’s Homeless and What Services They Need

Eight years after the creation of the Joint Office of Homeless Services, that office controls the data.

Houseless camp/tents downtown Residents living in downtown Porltland, OR on May 9, 2022. (Blake Benard)

The Multnomah County Joint Office of Homeless Services notched a major conquest last week: It finally gained control over the database that is supposed to track people who are homeless in the metro region.

On its face, that’s a modest victory. A consultant’s report WW obtained through a public records request paints a dismal picture of the so-called Homeless Management Information System that, as of March 25, is finally under county control.

“The experience of people using the HMIS is generally negative,” reads a February evaluation by Gartner Inc., which found the system for tracking the number and condition of those needing services is “siloed, outdated,” and offers “poor quality data as its single source of insight.”

In simple terms, the JOHS, which has a budget of $277 million this year, does not know how many people need services, what their issues are, who has contacted them, or whether current remedies for homelessness work.

“HMIS data is unreliable, and the data that does exist is not fully reportable,” Gartner found. “Leadership does not have complete information to draw insights, tell stories or make strategic decisions.”

The transfer of control over HMIS to the county offers the latest opportunity to correct that basic flaw. Here’s what we know about what we don’t know:

What is the HMIS?

For years, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development provided much of the money to combat homelessness. HUD wanted local jurisdictions to report on the results of expenditures in a standard way, so the HMIS emerged to track federal dollars. “It’s basically a compliance tool,” says Anna Plumb, deputy director of the Joint Office.

But since the passage of the Metro supportive housing services measure in 2020, local spending on homelessness vastly exceeds federal spending. Without an effective tracking system, however, Multnomah County Auditor Jennifer McGuirk says, the county is operating in a vacuum.

“If you don’t have accurate, complete data, your understanding of what is and isn’t working is incomplete,” McGuirk says, “and your ability to make positive changes is limited.”

What’s wrong with the system?

Gartner found the local system, which until last week resided at the city of Portland’s Housing Bureau, hadn’t been significantly upgraded since 2006. The result: Of 50 different functions that Gartner said would be useful to maximize outcomes, “only 8…are fully performed within the HMIS.” Among the missing: “reporting and analytics,” “care coordination” between providers, and “fund management.”

In addition to being antiquated, the system is difficult to use and largely inaccessible to service providers and many officials. Case managers can’t tap into the system from the field, meaning they can neither add nor retrieve useful information. “Providers actively work around the HMIS system to effectively perform their work,” Gartner found.

How does the county propose to fix it?

Plumb, the Joint Office deputy director, says her team in the short term will be patching and tweaking based on Gartner’s recommendations, which could improve functionality modestly. But the goal is to procure an entirely new system, which Plumb expects to take about three years. The goal is to deploy a system, like those in Seattle and other cities, that can track clients’ histories and their progress, even if they move across county lines or work with different service providers.

That would allow real-time access for providers and tracking of clients by name, a function the county began pursuing when it joined the “Built for Zero” initiative in 2021 (“The List,” WW, June 8, 2022). It would also give the county more timely, accurate counts than the biennial point-in-time tallies that have been the local standard.

Why has this taken so long?

Prior to the formation of the Joint Office in 2016, the Portland Housing Bureau controlled the HMIS. The bureau kept custody as part of the original agreement between the two governments. In a series of audit reports beginning in 2017, McGuirk’s office has beaten the drum for better data, repeatedly citing the futility of trying to evaluate or improve outcomes in a fact-lite environment.

In 2020, the year the Metro tax super-charged the flow of cash into homeless services, the two governments began transitioning the system to the county. Nobody will talk on the record about what slowed that switch-over—personality conflicts between elected officials are clearly a factor—but it reflects a general lack of urgency.

“I just don’t understand what took so long,” McGuirk says. “I find it kind of mind-boggling.”

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