Order Code RS22328
Updated September 26, 2006
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
The Homeless Management
Analyst in Social Legislation
Domestic Social Policy Division
Beginning in 1998, Congress directed the Department of Housing and Urban
Development (HUD) to develop a process for collecting data on the homeless. Together
with local communities, HUD began in 2001 to implement a Homeless Management
Information System (HMIS). The process is ongoing, with the first Annual Homeless
Assessment Report (AHAR) — an analysis of data from a sample of jurisdictions —
expected sometime in 2006. This report, which describes previous attempts to count the
homeless, the development of HMIS, and its current progress, will be updated as events
Our knowledge of the number and characteristics of the homeless is uncertain due
to the transient nature of the population. Although attempts to count and describe the
homeless have been made in recent decades, no systematic method for tracking the
homeless has existed until now.1 In response to a directive from Congress, the
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) began to develop a system to
track the homeless in 2001, with the goal of full implementation by 2004 (this goal has
not yet been reached). The HUD plan calls for local communities and their homeless
service providers to gather information about homeless individuals, and enter and store
the information in databases at the local level. This data collection, organization, and
storage system has been termed the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS).
As defined by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (P.L. 100-77), a homeless person
is “(1) an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence; and (2) an
individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is — (A) a supervised publicly or privately
operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations (including welfare hotels,
congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill); (B) an institution that provides
a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized; or (C) a public or private
place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
Two types of organizations are required to participate in HMIS: those that receive
funding through the Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA) program,2
and those that receive Homeless Assistance Grants. The Homeless Assistance Grants
were enacted as part of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (P.L. 100-77),3
and consist of both formula grants, which are distributed through the Emergency Shelter
Grants program, and competitive grants, which are available through the Shelter Plus Care
program, Supportive Housing Program and Section 8 Moderate Rehabilitation Assistance
for Single Room Occupancy Dwellings program.4
The three competitive Homeless Assistance Grants are awarded through the
Continuum of Care (CoC) system, which was implemented in 1994. CoCs are local
boards formed by communities — typically cities, counties, or combinations of both —
made up of representatives from nonprofit service providers, advocacy groups, local
government, and other interested organizations.5 Local boards identify the needs of the
homeless in their communities and ensure that they receive the appropriate mix of
prevention activities, emergency services, transitional housing, supportive services, and
permanent housing. Local homeless services providers submit requests for funding to
their local boards, which in turn submit a single consolidated application to HUD. In
FY2005, 453 CoCs received funding from HUD.6 HUD has charged CoCs with
implementing HMIS and receiving data from all participating local service providers.
Existing Data About the Homeless
Previous attempts have been made both to arrive at an accurate count of the number
of homeless in the United States and to describe their characteristics. Beginning in the
mid-1990s, HUD asked CoCs to provide a count of the sheltered homeless in their annual
grant applications. In 2003, it broadened the requirement and asked CoCs to provide
information on subpopulations of homeless, including the number of chronically
homeless, those with mental illness and HIV/AIDS, and victims of domestic violence.
For the 2005 count, HUD provided more specific guidance, directing CoCs to conduct a
one-night count during the month of January of both clients who used homeless services
and those who were on the street.7 HUD does not publicly release the results of counts
provided in the grant applications; however, in 2005, one newspaper contacted all CoCs
For more information on the HOPWA program, see CRS Report RS20704, Housing
Opportunities for Persons with AIDS (HOPWA), by Libby Perl.
P.L. 100-77 in codified at 42 U.S.C. §§11301-11435 (2002).
For more information, see CRS Report RL30442, Homelessness: Targeted Federal Programs
and Recent Legislation, coordinated by Libby Perl.
States may also constitute CoCs to coordinate funding in sparsely populated areas.
“Report to Congress: Fifth Progress Report on HUD’s Strategy for Homeless Data Collection,
Reporting and Analysis,” Department of Housing and Urban Development, March 2006, p. 5,
available at [http://www.hud.gov/offices/cpd/homeless/hmis/strategy/reporttocongress2006.pdf]
(hereinafter “2006 Report to Congress”).
“HUD’s Homeless Assistance Programs: A Guide to Counting Unsheltered Homeless People,”
Department of Housing and Urban Development, October 2004, p. 1, available at [http://www.
in the country to obtain their data, and reported that the aggregate number of homeless
counted was 727,304.8
The Urban Institute has twice estimated the number of homeless in the country, first
in 1989 and again in 2000. The 1989 study collected data during a seven-day period in
March 1987, and estimated that the number of homeless for that period ranged from
500,000 to 600,000.9 The researchers used this seven-day estimate to project that
approximately 1 million individuals were homeless at some time during 1987. The Urban
Institute released its second estimate in 2000, using data collected in 1996 (by the Census
Bureau) to estimate the number of all the homeless who used services during two weeks
of the year. In a seven-day period during the fall of 1996, 444,000 clients used homeless
assistance services, and in a seven-day period during the winter, the number was 842,000.
The researchers used these numbers to estimate that in 1996, between 2.3 million and 3.5
million individuals were homeless at any given time.10
A number of organizations have also collected information to describe the
characteristics of the national homeless population. Using the data collected in 1996, the
Urban Institute published demographic, income, and other information.11 The U.S.
Conference of Mayors has issued an annual report since 1984 in which between 25 and
30 large cities survey their social service providers’ efforts to combat hunger and
homelessness and provide housing.12 The Veterans Administration (VA) publishes an
annual report in which it reports the results of surveys from VA staff, service providers
and veterans themselves, as well as an estimate of the number of homeless veterans. 13
Finally, in 2000 the Census Bureau conducted several one-day surveys of homeless
individuals and wrote a report that described basic characteristics of the homeless, such
as location, gender, race, and age.14
Martin Kasindorf, “Search Produces a Wealth of Data Despite Some Holes in the Canvass,”
USA Today, October 11, 2005.
Martha R. Burt and Barbara E. Cohen, America’s Homeless: Numbers, Characteristics, and
Programs that Serve Them, (Washington, D.C.: The Urban Institute Press, July 1989), 32.
Martha Burt and Laudan Y. Aron, America’s Homeless II: Population and Services, The
Urban Institute: February 1, 2000, available at [http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/
Martha R. Burt, Laudan Y. Aron, et. al., “Homelessness: Programs and the People They
Serve,” Urban Institute, August 1999, available at [http://www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/
The most recent U.S. Conference of Mayors report, the USCM-Sodexho USA Hunger and
Homelessness Survey 2005, was published in December 2005, and is available online at
“The Twelfth Annual Progress Report on Public Law 105-114: Services for Homeless Veterans
Assessment and Coordination,” Veterans Administration, April 15, 2006, available at
[http://www1.va.gov/homeless/docs/CHALENG_FINAL_REPORT_[8-03-06].pdf]. The estimate
of homeless veterans in FY2005 was 194,254.
Annetta C. Smith and Denise I. Smith, “Emergency and Transitional Shelter Population:
2000,” U.S. Census Bureau, October 2001. The report is available from the Census Bureau
The HMIS initiative differs from these previous efforts to count the homeless and
gather information. Instead of sampling only certain communities, or counting the
homeless on only one night, CoCs gather information from all homeless assistance
providers on all homeless individuals who use their services. Once communities have
fully implemented HMIS, annual counts of sheltered homeless populations may no longer
be necessary since HMIS allows CoCs to pinpoint the number of homeless on a given day.
Counting homeless populations on the street might continue to be important, however, as
their use of services is unknown.15
Development of the HMIS Network
Congressional Direction. Beginning in 1998,Congress asked HUD to count the
homeless and gather data about both their characteristics and the use of homeless
assistance services. The FY1999 HUD spending bill (P.L. 105-276) set aside up to 1%
of the total appropriation for Homeless Assistance Grants for systems to track the
homeless. The law referred to the House Appropriations Committee report (H.Rept. 105610), which specifically described the type of data that HUD should collect, including an
unduplicated count of the homeless; characteristics such as age, race, sex, disability status,
health status, and income; types of services received; and outcomes. The report stated
that the information would allow HUD to better assess the quality of service programs.
Congress provided further direction in the HUD Appropriations Act for FY2001,
(P.L. 106-410). The law made Supportive Housing Program funds available for local
CoCs to implement management information systems.16 The Conference Report (H.Rept.
106-988) directed HUD to work with local jurisdictions to develop a system to collect
data, and to be ready to analyze the data within three years of passage of the
appropriations bill. The FY2001 Appropriations Act once again allocated funds to pay
for data collection, this time setting aside 1.5% of the total appropriation of $1.02 billion.
Congress has continued to allocate funds for homeless data collection in spending bills
from FY2002 to FY2006.
HUD Actions. In the time since Congress directed HUD to implement a system
to count the homeless and collect information on their characteristics, HUD has issued
five annual reports to Congress updating its progress. In an initial report, dated August
2001, HUD stated that it would help CoCs collect homelessness data through four
(1) flexibly implementing the new Homeless Management Information System
(HMIS) eligible activity under the Supportive Housing Program in the 2001
McKinney-Vento competition; (2) initiating a comprehensive technical assistance
“A Guide to Counting Unsheltered Homeless People,” p. 11.
The provision allowing HMIS funding from the Supportive Housing Program is codified at 42
U.S.C. §11383(a)(7) (2003). HUD enumerated the ways in which CoCs may use SHP funds for
management information systems in the Federal Register, volume 69, no.146, July 30, 2005, p.
“Report to Congress: HUD’s Strategy for Homeless Data Collection, Analysis and Reporting,”
Department of Housing and Urban Development, August 2001, p. 1, available at
program to help local jurisdictions collect unduplicated client-level data by 2004; (3)
developing an approach to obtaining meaningful data for an Annual Homeless
Assessment Report from a nationally representative sample of jurisdictions, and (4)
analyzing the most viable approaches to obtaining homeless client-level reporting.
Since issuing this 2001 report, HUD has initiated a number of activities to follow
through on its pledge to assist CoCs. It specified that CoCs may use Supportive Housing
funds for computer hardware, software, and personnel to manage and operate information
systems, analyze HMIS data, and produce reports. HUD technical assistance teams hold
training sessions for CoCs across the country. In 2004, 2005, and 2006, HUD sponsored
national conferences in which it provided sessions on a wide range of topics including
data entry, strategies for including data on domestic violence clients and the chronically
homeless, and how to use HMIS to evaluate program performance and improve services
to the homeless. HUD established a website — HMIS.Info — where information about
HMIS implementation across the country may be disseminated.18 Since October 2004,
the HMIS.Info site has published a newsletter, managed a list serv, and hosted conference
calls. In addition, a number of publications on implementing management information
systems are available on the HMIS.Info website.
HMIS Data and Technical Standards. On July 30, 2004, HUD released its
final notice on HMIS data and technical standards that local CoCs are expected to follow
when they collect information about their homeless clients.19 The standards describe two
levels of data collection — universal data, which homeless service providers must collect
from all clients, and program-specific data, which only programs that receive certain types
of funding must collect, but that other programs are encouraged to collect as well.
Universal data elements include name, date of birth, race, ethnicity, gender, veteran’s
status, Social Security Number, prior residence, and disabling conditions.20 Programspecific data must be collected by programs that have certain eligibility guidelines like
income, health status, or domestic violence status. In general, all programs that receive
funds under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act and HOPWA are required to
provide program-specific data; this requirement is not new, as HUD already requires them
to provide this information in their Annual Progress Reports.21 Included in programspecific data elements are amount and sources of income, receipt of non-cash benefits,
physical and developmental disabilities, HIV status, mental illness, substance abuse
status, and domestic violence status.22
Due to the sensitive nature of much of the information that homeless service
providers must collect, some groups raised privacy concerns to HUD, particularly those
organizations that provide services to domestic violence victims. Although HUD
acknowledged the sensitivity of certain information, it concluded that CoCs could collect
the information in such a way that would protect the identity of those in the system, and
The website is [http://www.hmis.info].
Federal Register vol. 69, no. 146, July 30, 2004, pp. 45888-45934.
Ibid., p. 45905.
Ibid., pp. 45913-45914.
Ibid., p. 45914.
it included privacy and security standards in the data and technical standards that all
organizations must follow. On January 5, 2006, the President signed the Violence
Against Women and Department of Justice Reauthorization Act, P.L. 109-162, which
includes provisions to (1) amend the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to
prevent victim service providers from disclosing personally identifying information
through HMIS, and (2) permit disclosure of non-personally identifying information only
after a public notice and comment period.23
Status of HMIS Implementation
At the local level, CoCs have several options for implementing and maintaining their
HMIS databases. Not all CoCs are implementing their own HMIS. Some are
collaborating to create a multi-jurisdictional HMIS. Others are planning to make
individual CoC data accessible at the state level, while 14 states have decided to
implement a state-level HMIS.24 Local initiatives also differ in their methods of
incorporating service providers into HMIS. Local CoCs may use one central HMIS, into
which all service providers input client information. Another option is to allow service
providers to use different database systems, but to have technical specialists available at
the CoC level to merge all data into one unified system. A third option is to use side-byside systems where individual service providers enter data into their own systems, and
also enter data into a CoC-wide HMIS.
As part of the collection of data through HMIS, HUD will release its first Annual
Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR), although its release date is unknown. The
purpose of the report is to obtain an unduplicated count of the homeless and develop a
descriptive profile of the population.25 According to HUD, the report will analyze data
collected in 80 communities, representing 71 CoCs throughout the country, that have
already implemented their HMIS. Communities represented in the first report are
geographically diverse — they include central cities, urban counties, cities of more than
50,000 people, and rural areas.
HUD’s initial goal was that every CoC implement an HMIS by October 2004.
According to HUD’s 2006 Report to Congress, as of 2005, 72% of CoCs were
implementing an HMIS (meaning actually inputting data), 20% had decided to implement
an HMIS and were in the process of planning the system, and 7% were not yet planning
In addition, H.R. 2695, the Safe Housing Identity Exception for the Lives of Domestic
Violence Victims Act, would allow service providers participating in HMIS to report personal
information on victims only if they obtain informed consent.
2006 Report to Congress, p. 6.
“The Annual Homeless Assessment Report: Frequently Asked Questions,” Department of
Housing and Urban Development, January 2005, p. 1, available at [http://www.hud.gov/offices/
2006 Report to Congress, p. 5.