Seattle: SHARE fights Homeless ID "Tracking Collar" FWD

Tom Boland (
Sat, 16 Oct 1999 06:13:04 -0700 (PDT)
FWD  Seattle Post-Intelligencer / Wednesday, October 13, 1999



Spurred by fears that a proposed city computer system to track them
will step on personal freedoms, a group of street people will meet
with city officials today to send a terse message: No way.

Members of the homeless issues group Seattle Housing and Resource
Effort say the tracking plan also deflects attention from a
shortage of emergency shelter beds in the city.

Group members say they will withhold from case workers personal
information that could be compiled and used against the homeless.

"It's not paranoia. It's just wrong," said John Steetle, a
homeless man who is part of SHARE. "We have no assurances on
how the information will be used. People are frightened....
Maybe I have a warrant out. Will I be cast as a bad homeless

But the concern is not universal among social service providers.

Bill Wippel of the Union Gospel Mission in Seattle said tracking
would allow his agency to better handle its caseloads. He said
case workers could study personal histories, share information
with other shelters and social programs and learn which people
are serious about getting off the streets.

"It's like being a doctor," Wippel said. "You can't treat the
patient without having proper information. The doctor always has
his file. We are interested in better management, not snooping."

The controversial tracking system is part of the city's Safe Harbors
program, a multipronged plan unanimously approved by City Council
last week to address the housing and service needs of about 5,500
homeless in Seattle.

The council has authorized $90,000 to hire a consultant to design
the program. Under the plan, a homeless person would be given a
unique number. Any time he or she went to a soup kitchen or slept
at a shelter, the number would be registered in a computer network.

A case manager could review a homeless person's file and determine
whether there is a pattern or potential solution for a case -- drug
rehabilitation or job referrals, for examples.

City Councilman Peter Steinbrueck said the city and surrounding area
have about 2,350 emergency shelter beds, in addition to transitional
housing rooms. But an exact number of homeless people and shelter
beds, he said, is hard to pin down.

"We don't have a system to accurately measure the number of homeless
people and the needs they represent -- substance abuse, mental
illness, out of jobs," Steinbrueck said. "The entire system is
either fragmented or uncoordinated."

In Seattle, city leaders currently spend $9.1 million on the
homeless, including $5 million for emergency shelter. But officials
felt the homeless services network needed to be more efficient.

So they convened with a wide range of people, from homeless
advocates to people on the streets to social service providers,
and discussed the best approach. They learned other cities --
including Philadelphia, New York and Boston -- were using computer
tracking system for years. Encouraged by success in those places,
Seattle officials imported the concept.

Dennis Culhane, an associate professor at the University of
Pennsylvania, who developed computer software to track the
homeless, said the concept "is an idea whose time has come."

"There are tremendous benefits," Culhane said. "It is not possible
to develop an efficient system of services and deliver them without
having good data."

In Philadelphia, civic leaders learned a surprising fact from the
computer tracking: The number of unduplicated homeless people using
the city's services was several times greater than the most liberal
estimates, Culhane said.

In addition, he said, shelters in Philadelphia learned specific
information about who was using the shelters -- a chronic homeless
population that tended to be disabled, mentally ill, and older.

Such detailed facts, allowed the city to better fashion solutions
for homeless people -- and save money.

But in Seattle, some homeless people have called Safe Harbor
"unsafe" and "no harbor," lambasting what they perceive as an
invasion of privacy.

Culhane, however, said laws require confidentiality of personal
information used by social agencies. In addition, computer programs
can be tailored to ensure that certain data is shared or analyzed
between certain social service agencies.


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