Demonstrating a need: How quality data ties together the ‘A Place for Everyone’ plan to fight homelessness

photo by: File photos

Lawrence City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St., and the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St.

By this time next week, both the Lawrence City Commission and Douglas County Commission may have officially adopted the city and county’s joint plan to eliminate chronic homelessness, “A Place for Everyone.”

A joint resolution to adopt the plan appears on the consent agenda for Tuesday’s City Commission meeting and as a regular agenda item for the County Commission meeting the following day. If city and county leaders do elect to move forward with this plan as their guide, they’ll be committing to more than $267 million in estimated spending on emergency sheltering resources, affordable and supportive housing, and equity and inclusion initiatives.

Over the past month, the Journal-World has spent time learning more about each goal area in the “A Place for Everyone” plan — and also unpacking exactly where the city and county might find the money to fund its most costly pieces — from the various community leaders involved with putting it together.

But as it turns out, it’s possible that the section of most consequence may be the least expensive by far.

This past week, the Journal-World spoke with leaders at the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition, based here in Lawrence, about the last of the plan’s five goal areas: systems. While the plan calls for just $25,000 in estimated spending in this area over the next five years, a healthy system for collecting better quality data — about when and how an individual entered homelessness, and which agencies they’re actively working with to return to housing — may go the longest way toward demonstrating the community’s need for larger shares of federal funding.

“These numbers are going to be able to tell us the stories of what’s actually happening and where we need to put our focuses at,” Shanae Eggert, director of the KSHC’s Coordinated Entry System, told the Journal-World.

• • •

To fully grasp the systems-related goals of “A Place for Everyone,” it’s important to first understand what exactly the Coordinated Entry System is.

That system is intended to provide a standardized process for how individuals and families are assessed for and referred to housing and supportive services, designed so they can be matched with the appropriate services as quickly as possible no matter where in the community they first seek help.

As part of that system, 101 of the state’s 105 counties, including Douglas County, are members of the KSHC’s Kansas Balance of State Continuum of Care — a network of all the service providers, advocates, local government officials and citizens working to eliminate homelessness. That statewide network complies with federal data collection, management and reporting standards mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by utilizing the Homeless Management Information System, the actual database where information about homeless individuals and families is stored and can be accessed by service providers.

For one local example, if an individual shows up for an overnight stay at the Lawrence Community Shelter for the first time but is already registered in HMIS after having received services at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, an LCS worker could connect with their peer agency to learn more about that individual’s care to date and how a case manager at the shelter could best help them moving forward.

That all plays into the process an individual might go through after falling into homelessness at a local level, according to Kristen Egan, the KSHC’s regional coordinator for Douglas County, from getting into an emergency shelter to finding permanent housing. And it all, ideally, takes place through a network of collaborating agencies like the aforementioned example involving LCS and Bert Nash.

“Everyone has a role in the system,” KSHC Executive Director Christy McMurphy added. “There’s many access points, so the person can present anywhere and get access to the system that way.”

• • •

It may sound like a comprehensive system, but the reality is there’s a lot keeping the city’s and county’s HMIS data from actually accounting for every single individual and family that’s experiencing homelessness.

One of the biggest barriers is that some agencies that work directly with the unhoused population either aren’t regularly logging data or simply aren’t using HMIS altogether, but that’s a challenge the KSHC is actively working to address. Egan said the agency is working to establish new access points with new partners, with Heartland Community Health Center being one good example.

“That’s the primary health care place for folks that are low-income or unhoused,” Egan said. “They were seeing a lot of folks that were not entered into HMIS, so they’re just kind of floating out there; nobody could see exactly what services they’d been getting, how long they’d been homeless, if they were in homelessness, out of homelessness, back in.”

Adding an individual to HMIS opens up opportunities not just for housing but for collaboration, Egan said, and as the KSHC recruits more agencies to HMIS it will contribute to a more efficient system. Currently, she said work is underway to get more agencies that aren’t funded by HUD on board, like the Drop In and Rest Center and The Village, the community of 64-square-foot Pallet cabins for people experiencing homelessness operated by LCS.

And the more agencies that participate, the more high-quality data the KSHC will be able to compile toward identifying the actual number of people experiencing homelessness in the community.

Soon, Eggert said that local agencies will be able to sort that data down to the county level via a new dashboard the KSHC is launching internally for partners using HMIS, which was unveiled in late April as part of the KSHC’s Summit on Homelessness and Housing in Kansas.

“Part of the data quality is to analyze that inflow (and) outflow, because this is a crisis response system,” Eggert said. “We actually don’t end the crisis. The systems group is not meant to end the crisis — it’s meant to respond to it.”

That means using the data to make it clear what resources Lawrence and Douglas County need — and why.

“No matter how good our system is, if we don’t have places to refer people, people are just sitting in the system, unfortunately,” Eggert said. “So a part of the systems group is also being able to identify that data and then provide that data so that we can get more resources instead of guessing.”

• • •

How does the KSHC move the needle on getting more participation in HMIS? One key strategy is education, not for the general public but for service providers.

Some of that educating took place late last month at the homelessness and housing summit. Eggert said plenty of time at the two-day conference was devoted to urging agencies from across the state to join HMIS.

And locally, Egan said she’s aiming to educate agencies in Douglas County about why HMIS is important and how it can improve outcomes for their clients.

The momentum is showing, Egan said; she described a shift in the past year as interest in utilizing HMIS has caught on with more agencies.

“I think LCS is funding a position for HMIS,” Egan said. “There’s a lot more community buy-in, probably because the funders have started to require that. And then it gets other people that may not benefit as much from the data excited about it, because then they can collaborate with these agencies. It’s just all, I think, kind of snowballing into a little more enthusiasm about using it.”

-This story is the last part of a series focused on “A Place for Everyone,” the City of Lawrence and Douglas County’s joint plan to eliminate chronic homelessness. Other stories in the series have highlighted areas of the plan dedicated to equity and inclusion and affordable, supportive and emergency housing.


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