Imagine this…you’re homeless for the first time and you go to a local agency seeking services. You’re embarrassed, you’re scared, and you have no idea what to expect. The agency staff are calming and empathetic. And then they start asking you questions…lots of questions. About your situation, about your family, and about items that at that moment don’t feel all that important.
Sharing your information can feel vulnerable. No one likes to share info that seems to be unrelated or not relevant. Nearly every one of us is asked to share data when we visit our doctor, when we apply for a driver’s license, when we apply for a job. But the information that non-profit organizations ask for helps those organizations know how to best help the individuals and families that seek assistance. Sharing that data with organizations like United Way helps us know how to best direct funding and other resources where they are most needed. And in a time of scarce and precious resources if we don’t know what people need, we can’t invest in the right solutions.
Funders like United Way use data that is collected at the agency level in aggregate and personal information that might identify a person or family is stripped out. The data is critical to how we make decisions about where dollars are and are not invested. It’s the way we track progress and one way that we are able to ensure a level of accountability. Currently we ask people to “opt-in” to give us permission to collect and share their data. We are the only state in the country that allows an “opt-in” option and the result is that we have far less data than many other communities. We’re working in the legislature to change our system to an “opt-out” model which will provide significantly more data. That in turn allows for far better program design and effectiveness. Of course, there are times when safety is a real issue so we’ve made an exemption for victims of domestic violence – we want people to be safe.
Yes – the quality and quantity of data we collect is important. But data by itself will not make homelessness rare, brief, and a one-time occurrence. Ultimately what ends homelessness is ensuring that agencies and their staff have the tools and resources that they need to do their jobs. To be that calming and empathetic place in the midst of chaos. Data is the mechanism by which organizations like United Way ensure that the funding and resources are in place to meet clients where they’re at and to help end homelessness one person and one family at a time.