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Q.A. with Sheldon Wheeler: Applying Key Strategies to Prevent and End Homelessness
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In an interview with Sheldon Wheeler, State PATH Contact and Director of Housing Resource Development for the State of Maine Department of Health and Human Services, we discuss homelessness as a state priority, organizational partnerships, and the value of using data and 10 year plans to prevent and end homelessness. The discussion is based on a report titled “Strategies of Mental Health Agencies to Prevent and End Homelessness.”

Sheldon Wheeler is a PATH Contact and Director of Housing Resource Development for the State of Maine Department of Health and Human Services.  Following up on a report titled “Strategies of State Mental Health Agencies to Prevent and End Homelessness,” Neil Greene of the PATH Technical Assistance Center asked Sheldon for his personal input on these strategies.

Q. What do you think are the most effective ways to keep state legislators informed and keep homelessness as a priority when there are so many competing agendas?

Not only are there competing priorities between homelessness and other social/economic/health demands, there are also competing priorities within the array of homeless services.  For example, we have to balance the needs between prevention and shelters and between individuals and families. That being recognized, it is imperative to keep state agency leadership informed on a regular basis because they are the individuals with direct contact with legislators.  It is also imperative to keep program managers and directors informed on a regular basis because those persons are less likely to be swept between gubernatorial administrations.  Helping to ensure continuity of best practices and good initiatives can often be aided by grants that extend projects across election years.  

Q. What does a good partnership look like?

Functional partnerships have a few common traits:  1) An understanding and respect and recognition of what each party can and can’t do; what is and what is not in their control. 2) Recognition that the group can accomplish far more working together than individual agencies can achieve on their own, no matter what size. 3) An ability to attack a problem and not each other.  4) Sharing success with the entire group, not a particular individual or agency. In my experience, groups that loose even one of these critical criteria often fail outright or continue to drag on into obscurity.

Q. How has using data benefited your organization?

Using data has been critical to both the growth and survival of several programs.  It is no longer relevant to tell a good anecdotal story when asking for money from government, foundations, the united way, or the taxpayer. Good use of data makes our business more transparent, accountable, and efficient.  One success in the utilization of data is the development of simple systems that can perform multiple and complex functions.  For example, our rental assistance programs utilize a combined monthly billing and reporting template that is completed by each Agency on a monthly basis.  This is a simple Excel document that is electronically transmitted between each Agent and a Central Administrative Agent (CAA).  The CAA rolls up these documents into a statewide database in Access.  These tables are used both for financial processing and program accountability and reporting.  I use them to conduct longitudinal trending analysis and reporting to decision makers on both program and fiscal performance.

Q. What challenges with data have you faced?

There are two significant areas where data collection is being improved.  One is the state’s billing system of Medicaid.  Years ago, Maine hired a private contractor to design and implement a custom electronic data system for Medicaid (MaineCare) claims processing.  This custom system was plagued with issues from inception.  Under current leadership, this system is making a very positive shift toward a payment claims system delivered through a vendor with strong experience in many other states, Unisys.   

The other area where data has been a challenge, and is slowly improving, is Maine’s Homeless Management Information System (HMIS).  Most of the issues within the HMIS system are relating to interpretations of HIPAA and confidentiality statutes at the state level.  If this system is going to fully be able to take advantage of its potential, there need to be more pro-active guidance, technical assistance, and demonstration grants from federal agencies.  

Q. Why do you think 10 year plans to end homeless are an effective strategy?

10-year plans are a strategy to focus attention on issues of homelessness.  Regardless of whether or not 10 year plans are re-written between gubernatorial administrations, having a 10-year plan allows for focus on homelessness.   Modifications allow buy-in from new administrations, which keeps these plans alive.

For the report that inspired this Q&A, visit Strategies of Mental Health Agencies to Prevent and End Homelessness

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