[Hpn] [Rutland (VT) Homeless Shelter] Mission makes a stand for clients' privacy; Rutland Herald; 7/11/2006

Morgan W. Brown morganbrown@gmail.com
Tue, 11 Jul 2006 10:50:02 -0700

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006
Rutland Herald
[Rutland, Vermont]
Rutland County area news section
Mission makes a stand for clients' privacy

July 11, 2006

By Brent Curtis Herald Staff

The Open Door Mission is revolting against a requirement to
electronically transmit personal information about those staying at
the shelter to a new state-run database.

The 40 homeless individuals and veterans staying at the facility on
Park Street in Rutland and the administrators running it have written
letters to the state Agency of Human Services and Gov. James Douglas
protesting the ongoing implementation of a new automated information
system that tracks the activities of Vermont's homeless population and
their use of state services.

Starting this spring, the state Office of Economic Opportunity, which
oversees Vermont's shelters, began moving its data from printed copies
to a comprehensive database.

The new system was developed in part to comply with federal
requirements that all shelters receiving U.S. Housing and Urban
Development emergency shelter grants report data electronically into a
Homeless Management Information System.

But state officials said they're also hopeful that the new system will
help improve delivery of services to those staying at shelters.

"It's about finding out who we're serving and how to do it more
effectively," said Cathy Voyer, director of housing and transportation
at Human Services.

But administrators at the mission say they are prepared to forego the
roughly $40,000 they receive in federal grants rather than transmit
their clients' personal information.

"The last person to tag someone was Adolf Hitler," said Sharon
Russell, the mission's executive director. "I'm not going to do that.
The one thing I have with these people is that they trust me."

Donna Baccei, the mission's associate director, said she would resign
before she transmits personal information to the database.

Russell said the 28 homeless veterans and 12 other individuals staying
at the shelter have already told her they don't want their names,
Social Security numbers or any other identifying information put into
the database.

Which isn't a problem, state officials said  sort of.

Personal information is only transmitted into the system with the
written permission of an individual, Voyer said. State officials
analyzing information in the database wouldn't have access to names,
Social Security numbers or other identifiers, she added, and none of
the database entries would appear on the Internet.

But if no one or very few individuals choose to participate then a
shelter's federal grant funding could be threatened, she added.

Without a healthy number of voluntary contributions, Voyer said state
agencies wouldn't be able to compile an accurate overview of the
homeless situation.

"If a (shelter) provided services to a family four times in one year
and each time they said 'no' then each time they would be considered a
different family," she said explaining the inaccuracies that occur
when personal information is lacking in the system.

"It's my belief that eventually, as people see that the agencies are
doing this and are able to document activities more effectively and
provide better services, then people will be more comfortable
participating," Voyer added.

But veterans staying at the mission said Monday that they were
adamantly against releasing their information.

Daryl Patterson said he has been staying at the shelter while he
recovers from a broken back. While he is thankful to the mission and
its staff for helping him get back on his feet, he said he doesn't
want to be branded by future employers as a former homeless man.

"There's a stigma that goes along with staying here," he said. "Once
you're labeled as homeless, there's a smell about you. I find the idea
of being tracked offensive. My theory is, 'Give me your address and
personal address so I can track you and see how much you like it.'"

As a retired Army colonel who served under two presidents at the White
House, Clinton Granger said he knows how bureaucracies work and when
they don't work.

In a letter addressed to the governor, Granger, who is staying at the
mission while receiving services at the Veterans Center Hospital in
White River Junction, wrote "I believe the use of the Internet would
compromise my personal privacy in a period when such privacy is
critically important to me. Please use your powers to protect the
privacy of those in shelters. The Internet is not secure."

While Granger, Russell and others at the mission said they've received
assurances that the database would be a secure, all involved said they
had misgivings about the security of e-mail systems used to transmit
information and about human errors while handling the information.

Rep. Steven Howard, D-Rutland, wrote in a letter to the Governor's
Office that recent slips in the Department of Veterans Affairs in
Washington, D.C., where personal information about thousands of
veterans went missing, illustrated his concerns.

"The residents of the mission deserve privacy," Howard wrote. "They
deserve respect and they should absolutely not be required to put
their future in jeopardy by providing your office with personal

Jason Gibbs, a spokesman for Douglas' office, said Monday the governor
had only recently heard concerns about the database but was moving
swiftly to investigate the complaints.

"The governor's very pleased that people have raised these concerns,"
he said. "The governor certainly wants to make sure that any new
system is safe and secure before it's implemented."

Gibbs emphasized that the administration has no intentions of forcing
homeless individuals to provide personal information. However, he said
the state has no control over federal policies that could cut funding
to shelters that don't provide adequate personal information.

"The federal requirements are out of our hands," he said. "All we can
do is work with (the mission) to implement a system that meets the
requirements or develop a separate system for their work with the

"The bottom line is that their information is private and they have a
right not to provide it," Gibbs added.

Voyer said she plans to visit the mission soon to meet with Russell.

"I have the utmost respect for the Open Door Mission and I want to
work with them to implement the system in a coordinated way," she

Contact Brent Curtis at brent.curtis@rutlandherald.com


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