The Homeless Law Blog is intended to be a research guide for people who are homeless and trying to learn about their legal rights and liabilities. It presents typical legal questions that arise in homeless life and then provides general information by introducing likely areas of law to investigate, showing search terms, and giving leads to primary law sources. The content of this blog is not tailored to anybody’s particular situation and should not be considered legal advice. Click on any of the categories on the right column of this screen to browse through a homeless law subject.
The administrator of this site is Linda Tashbook, Esq., an attorney licensed to practice in Pennsylvania and professional law librarian. She obtained her Juris Doctorate and Masters Degree in Library Science from the University of Pittsburgh.Her private law practice emphasizes legal aid for the homeless. She is the author of Family Guide to Mental Illness and the Law: A Practical Handbook (Oxford University Press, 2019). Prior to becoming a lawyer, Ms. Tashbook coordinated public library outreach to families in public housing and homeless shelters, served on the Allegheny County Runaway and Homeless Youth Task Force as well as the Allegheny County Homeless Education Network, and volunteered with various programs benefiting and involving homeless families.
In the comments sections following each question in this blog, please write about your relevant legal experiences with homeless life and please add links to resources that would be helpful to other readers who are interested in homeless people’s legal issues.
A Homeless Management Information System is a database of personal facts about the homeless people in a community. These facts are gathered from people when they get services from non-profits and government agencies that receive federal funds designated for homeless services. So, if someone spends a few nights in a shelter that gets noted in the database. If he needs insulin at the shelter, that gets noted in the database. If he goes to some other funded facility for a shower and shave, that is entered into the database. If he participates in vocational counseling or is a veteran or underwent a gender transformation, those facts go in the database. As you can see, some of these facts are gathered just as a result of participation and some are gathered when participants answer questionnaires.
These databases exist because every local and state service provider that uses federal money to provide programs, services, or resources to homeless people must collect information about how it spends the money and then report that information to the federal government. All that they report to the federal agencies (HUD, HHS, and the VA) are the numbers, no names. They do use the names in the community though, so that the various providers can have a total picture of each person’s needs.
Every community of homeless service providers, whether it is a city or a county or a region—depending on how homeless services are organized in that area—contracts with a database vendor to create its own HMIS. Then, as somebody goes from one homeless service agency to the next, he or she does not have to go through the whole exhaustive intake process each time and the provider can see any facts that might help them to best serve the client and make referrals to other entities or new programs that will be relevant to that individual consumer.
You have two ways of protecting your information:
- You can refuse to answer any of the questions that you object to. Refusing to answer will not make you ineligible for the service, but it will mess-up the provider’s records and can compromise its future funding. In the unlikely event that a provider says that you are legally required to answer a particular question if you want the service, you should direct that person to page 11 of the HMIS Data Standards Manual https://www.hudexchange.info/resources/documents/HMIS-Data-Standards-Manual.pdf which specifically says that “client refused is considered a valid response.”
- You can obtain a copy of your database report and tell the provider to remove any items that you do not want to have on record.
- See Title 24 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 578 to read the regulations about Continuum of Care Services for homeless populations. http://www.ecfr.gov
- Consult the HMIS Data Dictionary for clear definitions of just about every topic related to homeless life and government funding. https://www.hudexchange.info/resource/3824/hmis-data-dictionary/
- The federal HEARTH Act established the requirements for federal agencies to collect and utilize client data and more accurately audit the way resources are allocated for the homeless population. Read about this law and related actions at https://www.hudexchange.info/homelessness-assistance/hearth-act/.
- The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness coordinates local and state efforts to eliminate homelessness. You can see their research publications, some of which use data from the HMIS collections, at http://usich.gov/usich_resources/.
Thank you to Bill Hale who suggested this array of questions, made sure I knew about resources, and checked his own data in the HMIS.