Using Data to End Homelessness in Calgary

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By  Nick Falvo, PhD

On March 9, I spoke on a panel in Professor Susan PhillipsPolicy and Program Evaluation course at Carleton University.  This is a required course in Carleton’s Master of Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership program, and one of the program’s main themes is that non-profit organizations face strong expectations to demonstrate their effectiveness.  Thus, future leaders in the sector will need to be both knowledgeable and competent in this regard.


I was asked to speak to the above theme from the vantage point of my role as Director of Research & Data at the Calgary Homeless Foundation (CHF).  With this in mind, here are 10 things future non-profit leaders should know.

  1. In 2008, Calgary became the first city in Canada to launch a plan to “end homelessness.” Calgary’s plan was based on a model used in more than 300 communities in the United States. Today, more than one dozen Canadian cities have such a plan. Also since 2008, on a per capita basis, homelessness (as measured by Point-in-Time counts) has decreased in Calgary by 17%.
  1. Calgary’s Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS) may be the most sophisticated of its kind in Canada. When Calgary developed its plan, it decided to also develop an information management system that, among other things, could help it track progress. Indeed, last fall, I wrote that many of Calgary’s homeless-serving organizations enter client information into a database called HMIS.  Today, all Calgary non-profit programs that receive funding from the CHF must use the HMIS (it’s stipulated in their contracts); and some non-funded agencies voluntarily use the HMIS system for some of their programs.
  1. The development and implementation of Calgary’s HMIS system has been guided by several community committees. For several years, an HMIS Advisory Committee met to test the ‘big brother’ concern about the system. The Committee consisted of both staff from homeless-serving agencies and clients from the sector. Along with addressing privacy concerns, clients were part of the decision-making process (and were assured that the police would not have access to client records). There was also (and still is) an HMIS User Group attended by staff who use the HMIS system—that group meets on an ad hoc basis to discuss more technical matters, such as updates to the database system, reporting cycles and ‘how to’ matters (it met more frequently in the early days of the system than it does today).  Finally, now that the system has been ‘up and running’ for some time, the CHF still convenes smaller committees on an ad hoc basis to help guide specific initiatives.
  1. An important success of Calgary’s HMIS system has been its assistance with program referrals. Many (but not all) homeless persons in Calgary go through an intake process with the help of the Service Prioritization Decision Assessment Tool (SPDAT). The SPDAT gives the client an acuity score, which assists with their placement into CHF-funded housing programs (information gathered during the SPDAT process is entered into the HMIS system).  Based on the goals set out in Calgary’s Plan to End Homelessness, clients with higher SPDAT scores are often given higher priority for placement into CHF-funded housing.  Committees meet on a regular basis to recommend which clients be placed into the limited amount of subsidized housing available.[1] The formal name for this entire process is called Coordinated Access & Assessment (CAA). (For more on Calgary’s CAA system, see this recent book chapter by Jerilyn Dressler.)
  1. Some non-profit organizations have been happy to share their data with CHF; others less so. In my experience, before a non-profit shares data voluntarily with CHF, they like to know what exactly the data will be used for and how they may benefit from sharing their data. Until they see how the sharing of data can benefit their organization and its clientele, they’re reluctant to share (unless they’re mandated to do so by their funder).  Organizations such as the CHF need to therefore work hard to build trust with other non-profits and demonstrate how data sharing can be mutually beneficial, rather than simply thinking of receiving data as an entitlement.
  1. CHF disburses funding to Calgary-based non-profits in the homeless-serving sector each year; to monitor their outcomes and impact, it benchmarks them against key performance indicators (KPIs). Different programs have different objectives—for example, KPIs developed for some programs put emphasis on how effective those programs appear to be in creating stable housing situations for their tenants. CHF staff, in monitoring each funded agency’s progress on KPIs, is able to track progress thanks to the aforementioned HMIS database system.  CHF then makes annual funding decisions based in part on each funded program’s performance against KPIs. 
  1. Calgary’s HMIS system provides invaluable support to the aforementioned benchmarking system. Indeed, this has been one of the major successes of Calgary’s HMIS system. It’s through the HMIS system that ‘program performance’ data is gathered from CHF-funded programs.
  1. One drawback of HMIS data is that most of its client data is based on self-reporting. However, it should be noted that self-reported information is gathered by an experienced case manager during an in-person interview.  What’s more, many well-respected data sources in Canada are also based on self-reporting; these include the Labour Force Survey and the Census.  In future, CHF researchers would like to cross-reference self-reported HMIS data with administrative data from health systems and justice systems, in order to compare information on the same individual. (Such a research exercise would obviously require client consent, as well as cooperation from health and justice authorities.) 
  1. I think the main success of Calgary’s initial Plan to End Homelessness was that it helped galvanize public attention and stopped homelessness from rising. When the original Plan was developed in 2008, Calgary had experienced a 650% increase in homelessness over just a 10-year period. And as indicated above, Calgary has since seen a 17% drop in per-capita homelessness since the original Plan was unveiled.  I personally consider that to be a very impressive accomplishment; indeed, there is little doubt in my mind that there are people alive today thanks largely to that Plan.  In retrospect, eliminating homelessness by 2018 (a key goal of he original plan) was a very ambitious target.
  1. My main piece of advice to third-sector (i.e. non-profit) leaders is to be humble with data. By that, I mean they shouldn’t try to ‘over interpret’ data.  Non-profit leaders need to be honest about the limitations of both their data and the statistical analysis they undertake using that data.  They should also be forthright about assumptions they make in long-term projections.  When in doubt, they should seek guidance from more senior researchers.  Though it may be tempting to exaggerate one’s knowledge and foresight at times, remember that chickens eventually come home to roost.  And with that in mind, I’ll remind blog readers what the late John Kenneth Galbraith once said about economic forecasters: “There are two kinds of forecasters: those who don’t know, and those who don’t know they don’t know.”

[1] Even with Calgary’s sophisticated use of data, the city still has far more homeless people in need of housing than it has subsidized housing units available.  Thus, due to a lack of affordable housing, some people experiencing homelessness can wait years to be placed into housing; others die while on the waiting list.  That’s a big reason why the CHF endorses this recent policy statement and continues to lobby all levels of government for more funding.

Nick Falvo is Director of Research and Data at the Calgary Homeless Foundation. His area of research is social policy, with a focus on poverty, housing, homelessness and social assistance. Nick has a PhD in public policy from Carleton University. Fluently bilingual, he is a member of the editorial board of the Canadian Review of Social Policy / Revue canadienne de politique sociale.  Contact him at Follow him on Twitter: @nicholas_falvo.

Version française: L’ Utilisation de données dans le programme visant à mettre fin à l’itinérance à Calgary

The following individuals were very helpful in the preparation of this blog post:  Britany Ardelli, Janice Chan, Francesco Falvo, Louise Gallagher, Darcy Halber, Chantal Hansen, Ron Kneebone, Ali Jadidzadeh, Jennifer Legate, Kevin McNichol, Natalie Noble, John Rowland and Kelsey Shea.  Any errors are mine.

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  1. […] link to the English version is here; the link to the French version […]

  2. […] [1] Even with Calgary’s sophisticated use of data, the city still has far more homeless people in need of housing than it has subsidized housing units available. Thus, due to a lack of affordable housing, some people experiencing homelessness can wait years to be placed into housing; others die while on the waiting list. That’s a big reason why the CHF endorses this recent policy statement and continues to lobby all levels of government for more funding. […]

  3. […] Read 3ci Research Associate and the Calgary Homeless Foundation’s Director of Research and Data, Dr. Nick Falvo’s latest post on the emerging requirement for non-profits to demonstrate their effectiveness.  For the full blog, please click here. […]

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