In July 2009, the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) implemented a statewide electronic bed register. The bed register is a requirement for agencies in the state’s Emergency Family Shelter system. It tracks placements in Family Shelters using the state’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS). The Bed Register provides DHCD with daily information about open beds around the state, including characteristics of the rooms (e.g. carpet-free, handicap accessible, located on public transportation, etc). This information allows the placement unit to make appropriate placements in a timely fashion. The Bed Register is an example of a data collection program that had an immediate impact on families experiencing homelessness.
When first implemented, there was a 50 percent participation rate with the bed register. In September of 2009, when financial penalties for non-participation were imposed, the participation rate rose to over 95 percent. Though, few financial penalties were ever imposed because of mutual cooperation between shelter staff and DHCD and timely technical assistance provided by DHCD.
Bill Silvestri, the HMIS Coordinator at DHCD, explains that initial training for the Bed Register was delivered through online webcasts for users already familiar with the data collection system. DHCD provided an individualized webcast for each agency in the family shelter system. Before each webcast, the agency submitted information about their current data collection procedures and the characteristics of their shelter units so the webcast could be tailored to their needs.
DHCD also provided supplemental documents and manuals, such as a comprehensive online manual with screen shots of the software’s user interface and one-pagers with quick tips. These materials were posted on Mass.gov’s “Virtual Gateway,” a password protected portal to state services. This allows providers to access specific training materials much like the State PATH Contact Resource Center allows State PATH Contacts to access materials not available to the wider PATH community.
After the project was underway, DHCD’s troubleshooting efforts included the following:
Silvestri has advice for PATH providers who are beginning to plan for HMIS. He recommends that agencies incorporate data collection responsibilities in job descriptions and carve out time for learning and practicing new technology. When difficulties arise, he recommends that States and Continuums of Care provide technology support via online help desks. Silvestri recognizes that many agencies lack basic computer resources and reminds agencies that there are organizations that provide software or hardware updates to nonprofits at low or no cost.
- On-site technical assistance upon request,
- Help desk sessions where the user shares their computer screen with technology support staff,
- Site visits to observe workflow and provide workflow suggestions, and
- User groups where providers network and share tips with each other.
Silvestri feels that successful data initiatives require agencies to promote a culture change towards electronic data. Agencies can begin this shift by encouraging staff to use electronic systems like Microsoft Outlook Calendars or Google Docs. This can help agencies become accustomed to working with technology and demonstrate the value of electronic tools for human service providers. Silvestri reminds us that there will always be a learning curve for staff using new technology. When agencies can put the time and resources into initiatives like streamlined data collection, it can increase efficiently and actually leave providers with more time in the field.
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