5 Best Practices for Data-Driven Homeless Services

June 6, 2022 | Social Solutions Group
5 Best Practices for Data-Driven Homeless Services

As rewarding as it may be, leading your homeless services organization can also be difficult due to limited resources, external challenges, and a lack of organized data. While you may not be able to directly combat factors outside of your organization like city policies or natural disasters, you can create contingency plans and better internal processes with proper data collection and management.

Successfully managing a homeless services organization requires staff members to tackle many tasks each day, as well as unexpected challenges that can come up. Unfortunately, this means that properly inputting and tracking data can sometimes take a back seat in order to keep up with immediate responsibilities.

However, taking the time to implement data-focused best practices can benefit your organization in the long run by empowering your team to make fact-based decisions, analyze their overall impact, and better serve clients.

This article explores five strategies to help your homeless services organization gather and leverage your data.

  1. Create strategies for the four types of homelessness.
  2. Leverage your HMIS.
  3. Attain buy-in from your staff.
  4. Assist clients with forms.
  5. Practice data hygiene.

Remember that data is ultimately a tool, and it’s up to your team to determine how you’ll use it in your case management system. When gathering data, consider the factors behind why your data is what it is, as well as ways your organization can use it to help both individuals and your entire community.

1. Create strategies for the four types of homelessness.

As a professional in homeless services, you know that homelessness comes in different forms, and each type needs its own approach that takes its unique factors into account. Specifically, your organization should take these four types of homelessness into consideration:

  1. Chronic. Chronic homelessness is marked by experiencing homelessness for more than a year. These individuals tend to skew older and usually have some significant obstacle preventing them from gaining permanent housing, such as an ongoing medical issue.
  2. Episodic. Individuals who have experienced homelessness three times in the span of a year are considered episodically homeless. Episodic homelessness most often affects young people with mental health, substance abuse, or medical problems. After the fourth time, they are considered chronically homeless.
  3. Transitional. Transitional homelessness is considered to be the most common type of homelessness and is marked by individuals being rendered homeless as a result of a major life event. This can include job loss, divorce, or any other factor that results in sudden eviction.
  4. Hidden. As the name implies, hidden homelessness is the most difficult type of homelessness to detect. Individuals experiencing hidden homelessness usually go unreported since they stay with other people while they are unable to find permanent housing.

When collecting data and forming data-driven strategies, taking the four types of homelessness into account can help inform your data and allow you to make more targeted, effective decisions when helping your clients. For example, your organization might take extra steps to help those who are episodically homeless avoid becoming chronically homeless, or your team might create a list of signs of hidden homelessness to help identify individuals experiencing this type of homelessness.

2. Leverage your HMIS.

Your homeless management information system (HMIS) is one of your strongest tools for managing your clients’ data and your organization’s funding. Ensure your staff is taking advantage of your HMIS’s features to create a streamlined internal communication and reporting process.

Social Solutions’ housing case management software webpage outlines a few key features of your HMIS to keep in mind:

  1. Intake capabilities. Streamlining your intake process can help your team save time and also help you provide clients with the services they need faster. As your team will be managing sensitive information, ensure that your intake process is both secure and easy to complete.
  2. Industry-specific reporting. If your homeless service organization reports to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), you’ll need to ensure that your reports are timely, accurate, and compliant. Your HMIS should come with reporting tools that take this into account, allowing you to generate the reports you need.
  3. Outcomes tracking. Is your team actually accomplishing its goals? Data-driven outcomes tracking tools can help you measure individual and overall outcomes to determine how successful your current processes are and make adjustments if needed.

Ensure your organization has proper documentation and onboarding notes to help new team members quickly get up to speed on how to use your HMIS, CRM, or any other software tools your organization is using. Doing so will help new staff members get to work faster and prevent potential errors that can happen when first learning how to use new technology or process.

3. Attain buy-in from your staff.

With your staff’s many daily responsibilities, some may see data collection and management practices as overly bureaucratic or even as distractions from completing their work. To ensure that your data management practices achieve the results you need, you’ll first need to gain buy-in from your staff. You can accomplish this by:

  • Creating a streamlined onboarding process. If your team doesn’t understand how to work with your software, they are unlikely to view it as important. Implement streamlined workplace training and onboarding processes that give team members hands-on experience and create documentation that they can refer back to if they have any questions about how to enter or use your data.
  • Holding team-wide meetings about your data. Ensure your entire team understands why your data matters and how it can actively help your organization better serve your clients. Hold discussions with your staff that allow them to ask questions about your data management processes and offer their input regarding how internal processes can be improved.
  • Emphasizing national guidelines. As mentioned, if your organization reports to HUD, proper data management is essential to your organization’s continued operations. Emphasizing the importance of adhering to national standards can provide an additional incentive to assist with your organization’s data management adoption, even among team members who may still have low buy-in.

Practices like these can help normalize data management at your organization, making it a routine part of your staff’s day rather than an extra task outside of their important work. You can also help your team by ensuring that each of your software solutions integrates with your current system to make data management easier and more efficient.

4. Assist clients with forms.

Your organization needs data from your clients in order to make the right decisions for each case. However, many of your homeless services’ clients are in precarious situations and may need assistance filling out various forms.

Whenever you need to collect data from clients, be sure to consider their unique situations. For example, many of your clients will lack internet access and won’t have a reliable way to access self-service tools. Some may even be distrustful or hesitant to provide complete and accurate information, particularly if you haven’t already established a connection with them.

You can overcome obstacles like these and establish secure data collection practices that align with your organization’s values by creating forms and other intake processes that use straightforward language, only ask necessary questions, and are in an environment where clients feel safe.

5. Practice data hygiene.

Data errors such as incomplete information, inconsistent data, and duplicate entries can build up over time, making your database more difficult to use. You can get ahead of this problem by implementing routine data hygiene practices.

NPOInfo’s guide to nonprofit data hygiene has a few steps that organizations can follow to clean and manage their databases:

  • Check for data inconsistencies. If your organization has changed or used multiple types of data input procedures in the past, you may have inconsistent data. Note any discrepancies about how information is recorded in your database, correct them, and determine how you will input it in the future to prevent more inconsistencies.
  • Remove unhelpful data. Duplicate entries, outdated data, and inaccurate information can all appear as a result of human error. Take the time to identify this unhelpful data and remove it. The right case management software can help automate this process by flagging duplicate data and consolidating it.
  • Establish an ongoing maintenance process. After cleaning your database, take the time to identify what your primary data hygiene concerns are and implement practices to prevent them in the future. For most organizations, this will include conducting ongoing routine maintenance to fix small errors shortly after they occur, rather than letting them accumulate over time.

Additionally, consider your cybersecurity practices. Homeless services organizations often collect sensitive information, such as personal information from homeless youth, individuals who have experienced violence, and individuals with medical conditions. You can reassure these individuals that it is safe to share the details of their situation by using protected forms and software that will keep their information secure.

Homeless services organizations perform invaluable services to the most vulnerable members of their communities. Ensure that your organization is making the best decisions for your clients by collecting and using data that can help inform your organization’s practices. Leverage your data to better fit each client’s unique situation, take advantage of your organization’s software solutions, and ensure your team feels comfortable entering and using your data, and you’ll be able to do even more to advance your mission.