September 9, 2003
Re: Homeless Surveillance
We write to alert you to the Department of Housing and Urban Development's proposed guidelines for the implementation of Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS). As you are aware, this system is being implemented in order to obtain an accurate count of the homeless for the purpose of improving services.* While this goal is laudable, the proposed guidelines create an extremely invasive system of collection and use of personal information. As proposed, the system will expose the homeless to a degree of surveillance normally employed against those who have been convicted of a crime.
The proposed guidelines create mandatory data collection obligations on Continuums of Care (CoCs) across the country. CoCs will have to collect dossiers on the homeless that include their full legal names, dates of birth, Social Security Numbers, ethnicity and race, gender, veteran status, and the person's residence prior to program entry. The Homeless Management Information System questionnaire delves deeply into the personal lives of the homeless, tracking where they have been, what services they have used, their income, benefits, disabilities, health status, pregnancy status, HIV status, behavioral health status, education, employment, and whether they have experienced domestic violence.
This collection of information presents major privacy and civil liberties risks:
- Homeless Management will lay the groundwork for a central, nationwide system of homeless person tracking. Although the Department of Housing and Urban Development has expressed that it will not create a nationwide tracking system, the agency's guidelines contain all the necessary conditions to create such a registry.
- Police access to the Homeless Management database is nearly unlimited. The agency's proposed guidelines allow HMIS users to disclose information from the database for national security purposes without any showing of an emergency, a court order, or even a risk of attack. Secret Service access is similarly broad. Under the guidelines, agents from national security or the Secret Service could simply ask for an entire homeless database and receive it lawfully.
- Homeless Management places victims of domestic violence at heightened risk. Those who are fleeing violent partners should not have their information collected or transmitted to any central location. HMIS could have the effect of allowing abusive partners to locate victims through access to the database (by law enforcement officers or system users).
- Homeless Management, if implemented, could gravely harm individuals living with HIV or AIDS. The proposed guidelines call for collection of highly sensitive information. Accidental or deliberate exposure of information in the system could subject populations to stigma or discrimination.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development is relying upon House and Senate Conference Report language to justify this invasive system of tracking. However, while Congress has expressed the need to have a better enumeration of the homeless, it has never advocated a system that builds personally identifiable information on each person who receives care.
Less invasive alternatives could meet Congress' interest in collecting information about the homeless. HUD could instead perform a census-style "snapshot" of a representative population of homeless persons. A snapshot would be more effective because it would be more privacy friendly, and prevent individuals from giving false enrollment information. It would also be far less expensive than HMIS programs.
We urge the Committee to exercise its oversight powers to limit these proposed guidelines. HUD does not need to build personally identifiable dossiers on each homeless person in order to serve the population more efficiently. We also urge the Committee to provide guidance on appropriate law enforcement, national security, and Secret Service access to HMIS. Such access should only be available in exigent circumstances, or when agents have a warrant issued by a neutral magistrate. Finally, we urge the Committee to protect victims of domestic violence by exempting all CoCs that provide assistance to victims from requirements to report personally-identifiable information to the system.
Thank you for your attention to this important issue. If we can provide more information about privacy and Homeless Management, please feel free to call upon us. A webpage devoted to privacy and poverty is online at http://www.epic.org/privacy/poverty/
Cc: Michael Roanhouse, Housing and Urban Development
*Homeless Management Information Systems (HMIS) Data and Technical Standards Notice, 68 Fed. Reg. 43,430 (Jul. 22, 2003), available at http://www.epic.org/privacy/poverty/hmis.pdf.