Seeking to aid homeless coordinators, the Los Angeles City Council voted Wednesday to support greater access to the Homeless Management Information System, a database on services provided to people experiencing homelessness— despite concerns over privacy.
The council voted 13-0 to request a report from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority on granting access to HMIS to the city’s council district homeless coordinators, who work with specific council offices.
Using client-level data, HMIS is designed to capture information over time about people moving in or out of homeless assistance systems. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it “provides the most accurate picture of the extent and nature of homelessness within a community.”
Allowing staff to access that information would allow coordinators to find out the assigned case manager for people experiencing homelessness who have been entered into the system. That would allow for faster access to housing solutions when they become available and streamline the process for connecting people to housing, according to a motion filed by Councilman Kevin de León.
Several organizations that work with the homeless submitted statements to the council opposing the item, citing concerns that private information of unhoused people would be shared more widely.
“This dramatic expansion of access without necessary safeguards would hurt more than help,” Zeke Sandoval, public policy manager at People Assisting the Homeless, wrote to the council.
Sarah Rubinstein, homeless initiative manager at United Way of Greater Los Angeles, wrote to the council that the group was concerned HMIS would “be used to screen out, rather than in.”
“Clients gave consent for their information to be shared with service providers, not council offices,” Rubinstein said. “Without explicit changes to consent forms, sharing access may violate privacy rights and further undermine trust in the system.”
Councilman Mike Bonin voted in favor, but cautioned that information such as an unhoused person’s medical or criminal history is not necessary for council staff or elected officials to have access to. He supported methods that would allow access to information in a limited capacity, “without causing concerns about private or privileged information being violated or otherwise released.”
Other council members refuted the notion that their staff couldn’t be trusted with information from HMIS.
According to de León, chair of the council’s Homeless and Poverty Committee, several representatives from homeless service providers called into the last committee meeting and made “highly irresponsible” public comments against providing access that “deeply concerned” him.
“I doubt highly there are nefarious attempts to utilize this information, monetize this information, access criminal records or utilize it for political purposes,” de León said.
Councilman Paul Krekorian said people have every right to hold the council accountable on how it is addressing homelessness.
“At least give us the information we need in order to get someone who is dying on the streets into the services that they need that will save their lives,” Krekorian said. “For anybody to stand up and say the members of this council and our staffs should be deprived of that information— at the very same time that we’re not doing enough to lift people off the streets— is idiotic.”
Susie Shannon, policy director for Housing Is A Human Right, told the council that she’s been asking for years that non-profit homeless service providers who receive taxpayer dollars “have some accountability from this council.”
“This is the very minimum that you could do as a council to help our unhoused community,” Shannon said.
One speaker who said she is trying to find housing asked the council why people experiencing homelessness are not able to access the HMIS system themselves. She told the council she contacted various agencies to try and find her HMIS number, but has not been successful.
“I’m not able to actually go ahead and do any of that registry (for housing) if I don’t have access to it,” the speaker said.
Several council members agreed and said they would work to allow clients to access the system.
Bonin called it “ironic” that the council was asking for HMIS information when the “average person who is unhoused” does not have access to it.
“As interested as I am in making sure we have access to help people, if we’re not coming up with a system that provides them agency and ability to access and influence their own transition off the streets, we’re still coming up real short,” Bonin said.