When a homeless person needs help, they are often asked for a lot of personal information.
For victims of domestic violence, that information could potentially help an abuser track them down. That’s why homeless people in Washington state are given the choice to keep personal information from a big database that service providers keep and share on the people they help.
But that security safeguard has had an unintended consequence: Washington state receives less federal and donor money to help the homeless.
Big funders like the federal government, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Way want the information to track their money – and to improve programs. But advocates worry that survivors of domestic abuse might be put in danger.
“I’ve worked with survivors who have changed names, moved across state lines with their children, and their information ended up being sent or shared with their abuser somehow,” said Grace Huang of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
“They were put in danger, and they were forced to pick up and move again.”
Officials with the Washington State Department of Commerce, which runs the state’s Homeless Management Information System database, said it has not had any security breaches.
Huang said she’s not aware of any data breaches, either. But she said that that when survivors are tracked down by their abusers, they often don’t know how they were found out.
Huang said Washington’s system aims to make sure the push for data doesn’t endanger anyone in the already-desperate situation of being homeless.
“There’s a lot of pressure to do what you need to do to get a roof over your head,” she said. “The providers themselves face a lot of pressure from their funders to have a pretty high compliance rate with collecting that data from people.”
Washington’s program is different from other states – here, service providers ask people if they consent to giving their information. Elsewhere, it’s assumed they are providing their personal information unless they specifically request to withhold details.
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Mark Putnam, head of King County’s Committee to End Homelessness, said Washington’s current policy costs the state half a million dollars a year.
Testifying in Olympia in February, Putnam said, “The data provides us with vital information that helps us improve programs. It means we can serve more people and serve them more effectively and quicker.”
Eddy Mahon, who works at the Aloha Inn on Seattle’s Highway 99, said he never pressures people into sharing their data – even though it might help out the Aloha Inn financially.
Part of his job is screening homeless people hoping to live there. Mahon tells people applying for a room, "For us to keep the best funding, we would prefer that people pick one of the first two options" -- namely, either sharing all their personal info, or just their name and the last four digits of their social security number.
"But the choice is completely up to you and does not affect your entry into our program," Mahon tells them.
Mahon said the Aloha Inn keeps any domestic violence victim's personal information out of the database. But there's no statewide policy along those lines.
Mahon used to be homeless himself. When he first tried to get a room at the Aloha back in the day, he was in the early stages of recovering from a longstanding meth addiction. He said his memories of that time are still a bit fuzzy.
He believes he shared his personal information.
“When I was using, I didn't really care too much about my information,” he said. “My credit was so bad, it was like, if somebody was really going to take and use my information, they'd probably improve my credit! Now, that's not the case. So I'm 99 percent sure I gave full consent."
Keeping thorough data is a federal requirement, and when lots of homeless people decline to let their data be shared, it hurts the state’s ability to get federal funding for the homeless.
In January, after five years of debate, negotiations reached a breakthrough. Homeless advocates agreed to boost privacy protections and training for homeless shelter workers to make sure they clearly explain how the information is used and protected.
The domestic violence coalition agreed to drop their opposition to the push for more data. Huang said the domestic violence community is divided on the bill, but they're not fighting it any more.
"Our goal is that people don't feel like they're going to put themselves at risk because they are so desperate to get housing,” Huang said.