What Homelessness Data We Need

Many believe that to make significant progress on issues like homelessness, mental illness, crime, and addiction, we’ll need a bunch more money and staff.

But I’m not yet convinced. I believe good leadership and management practices can change the game.

One of the key ways to improve our management practices is to get clear about what data we need to collect and report – and then review that data regularly so it can drive decisions.

If you’ve been going to our Board Meetings, you probably haven’t heard much data about homelessness – and that’s a problem. As the great management guru, Peter Drucker said, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.”

At March’s AT HOME Shasta meeting, there was a conversation about the importance of reporting quality data and a presentation on the progress made since January when the United Way took over the homelessness data system (HMIS). While there was broad agreement that the committee would like to see more data on the effectiveness of the community’s efforts, there wasn’t a conversation about what data would be nice to see regularly.

To help advance that conversation, I offer a recommendation below on the data that would be great for United Way and its partners to share with the AT HOME Committee and/or other relevant elected bodies. I’m sure the Committee could come up with a more refined list in collaboration with United Way and the COC, but this may be helpful as a starting point.

Because it will take time to clean up the data and prepare the reports, I’d recommend working on this in 3 phases:

Phase 1

  • Outcomes: Our ultimate goal is to reduce the number of homeless individuals in our community, so we need to track the number and how it changes each month.
      • Count: Total number of homeless individuals on the last day of the month
      • Inflow: Total number of new homeless individuals added to the count during the month
      • Outflow: Total number of individuals who were homeless during the previous or current month that are no longer homeless or no longer located in Shasta County
  • Community Engagement: The data is only valuable if it represents the majority of what is happening in the community and it is being used by those addressing this challenge in the community – which is why engagement is so important.
      • Number of community partners entering/updating data during that month
      • Number of community partners participating in the Coordinated Entry calls happening in that month
  • Data Quality:
    • Percentage of homeless individuals in the system that have no recorded vulnerability assessment in the last 12 months (each record is supposed to be updated at least annually)
    • Percentage of open projects or participating organizations with no reported activity in the last month


Phase 2

Continue tracking data from phase 1 and add these additional measures to understand housing inventory.

  • Housing Inventory: Understanding housing availability in nearly real-time will enable the community to make rapid decisions around rehousing individuals and inform efforts to increase housing supply.
      • Total number of housing units by type
      • Total number of vacancies by housing type
      • Utilization rates of housing units by type


Phase 3

Continue tracking data from phase 1 and 2 and add these additional measures to understand what additional services are needed in our community.

  • Service Utilization: We need to think about our efforts to address homelessness as a system rather than multiple independent services. To do this, we need to understand the need for various services within our community, where bottlenecks exist, and where we have extra capacity.
    • Total people served by organization 
    • Total people served by each service type (this would likely require categorizing services)



Why I’m convinced good leadership and management practices can be game-changers

I lived this story once before in a very different context. While working at a nonprofit consulting firm, everyone told me that 55-hour weeks and burnout were just features of working at a competitive consulting firm. But I believed there could be a different experience if I could apply good management practices to how I spent my time at work.

I ended up getting to the point where I was working less than 40 hours/week and spending a third of my time on projects of my own choosing while receiving faster-than-average promotions. I didn’t have to change the resources. I had to change my management practices.