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Gov't Proposes Massive Homeless Tracking System 808

Chris Hoofnagle writes "The Dept. of Housing and Urban Development is proposing a massive system of tracking for homeless people and others who are served by shelters and care centers. The system will track people by their SSN, and will collect health (HIV, pregnancy) and mental information. Secret Service and national security agents can gain access to the database by just asking for it! EPIC has released a fact sheet on HMIS, and the public can comment on the guidelines until September 22, 2003, but no electronic comments are being accepted."
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Gov't Proposes Massive Homeless Tracking System

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  • by Dr. Bent ( 533421 ) <> on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @04:18PM (#6736790) Homepage
    Fine with me. So long as you also provide the list to Habitat for Humanity []
  • by kudos200 ( 698269 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @04:22PM (#6736866)
    i think that's the point though: getting them back into society. it seems like they feel they can improve efficiency with this stuff, and use the money spent on low income housing, etc more effectively, which would help more of them "get back into society."

    wouldn't it be worth it to spend a small amount of money on "tracking" if it meant a greate increase in the effectiveness of the help given to the homeless?

    i don't know how effective the tracking is, or if it's worth it, but it might be. maybe spending the money there will get more people into homes, etc. or maybe not, who knows.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @04:22PM (#6736876)
    Reminds me of a spoof of 'Wild America' from a few years ago...where they stalked and tagged some homeless people (I smell someone getting offended already). Anyway...

    This could at least provide some data on where they go and what they're doing. It could actually assist with what you propose. Consider how and where they should be motivating these people....spend money in the wrong place, and therefore has little effect, and funding could be snatched away for many years to come. I hate all the excessive planning the government is notorious for, but this isn't such a bad thing IMHO..
  • by namespan ( 225296 ) <namespan@elite m a i> on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @04:24PM (#6736901) Journal
    There are a significant portion of the hard-core homeless that will simply stay off-grid, that's why they're homeless in the first place, they decline to participate.

    Dead right. And despite the fact we call it paranoia, slashdot paranoia is absolutely nothing compared to real paranoia. I have a paranoid schizophrenic aunt, and for the implication of every program like this, there's a very real chance she'd risk starvation before going to social services agencies.

  • Care Not Cash (Score:2, Interesting)

    by The_Rippa ( 181699 ) * on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @04:24PM (#6736917)
    One of the benefits of a system like this will be that the government agencies that give money or care to the homeless will not have to worry about people coming in under five different names to collect their benefits. I'm a developer for the city of SF and worked on the Care Not Cash system after it was voted in. One of the highlights was creating a fingerprinting system to stop homeless people from abusing the system like this. Privacy advocates went nuts, but the bottom line was to stop the abuse. It saves money and gives money to the people who need it in the long run.
  • by King_TJ ( 85913 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @04:26PM (#6736937) Journal
    You're exactly right, and I think it's worth taking a long, hard look at just *why* our government feels a need to keep tabs on where its citizens are.

    The "standard" line of reasoning basically says they want your current address because they need to be able to bill you for their services (income tax).

    If, however, you're unemployed and don't have a physical address, you're by definition not a taxable citizen. Therefore, any "tracking" the govt. wants to do to these folks is for their own information-gathering purposes - and doesn't seem necessary to me at all.

    As you pointed out, there's also the (very likely) ulterior motive of trying to skew the statistics in their favor, while saving money on paying for care for folks insisting on remaining anonymous.

    As for the unemployment rate statistics, they're not really useful as anything more than a relative indicator of economic health. Consider this, though. Even those who turned to the "black or grey market" to scrape out a living are aiding the economy. They're providing goods or services (however questionably legal), and collecting money in exchange for those goods/services. Therefore, they cause others to spend some of their cash, which gives them incentive to keep working to earn more money to replace what was spent. The biggest thing that kills the economy is stagnation. The folks who have money are afraid to spend it, so the folks who don't have it find it very hard to get it.
  • by btakita ( 620031 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @04:28PM (#6736978) Homepage

    I tried helping a homeless Vietnam Vet named Ben. He wanted to see his family, whom he has not seen in 8 years. We were unable to track down his family. Ben was addicted to alcohol, and was missing a leg, from diabetes, a few years after the war.

    His family was looking for him too, a lady called the shelter looking for her father. Unfortunately, we came to the shelter about a day later, and she never called back.

    Such a tracking system would probably have reunited Ben with his family.

  • by hmckee ( 10407 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @04:30PM (#6737008)
    I fully support a person's right to privacy and their desire to not participate in society, however, getting government handouts and not participating in society are mutually exclusive.

    Why not track their benefits? The gov't and private agencies track all of my benefits: SS benefits, income tax, disability insurance, health care status. By tracking the "benefits" the homeless recieve, the gov't will be able to provide better care and make better plans and budgets thereby saving the taxpayer money.

    If they really want to live "off the grid" and not participate in society, screw 'em. They shouldn't get any gov't supplied and organized benefits from my taxes.

    I've chosen to participate in society and will not support an individual who wants to live outside society, they're on their own.

    As to the Secret Service getting the info at their own discretion, I'm against that.

  • by calethix ( 537786 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @04:35PM (#6737081) Homepage
    "Also, this would help hospitals treat patients they have never seen before, as it could assist them in identifying a mentally ill person that needs a specific form of medication."

    That applies to everyone, whether they're homeless/mentally handicapped or not. Are you ready to be tagged?

    I might end up in a serious car accident some day leaving me unconscious. It would be really helpful if I have some implant so medical personel could find out who I was and see my medical history. That doesn't mean I'm going to volunteer to be tagged and tracked like an animal though.
  • Re:What a crock (Score:3, Interesting)

    by diersing ( 679767 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @04:38PM (#6737110)
    I also think its a good idea.

    Tracking the outpaying of social services, social security, disability, medication etc. Keep an accurate account of the numbers of the homeless and the economic trends that may affect those numbers. Althought without the economic means, how much do the homeless migrate? Even if its not state-to-state I would expect intra and inter city migration patterns would develop given time with this system.

    Where is the breech of civil liberties? Where is the invasion of privacy if the Secret Service know a homeless person collected food from this shelter on Monday AND got soup from a different shelter cross town on Wednesday?

    Honestly... I don't see the harm. They already track what I do based on my social security number, why should the homeless expect more privacy then I?
  • by DrMrLordX ( 559371 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @04:44PM (#6737203)
    Actually, most of the data they want to track on homeless people would be similar to data already available to the Secret Service/CIA/FBI/any PI worth his/her salt in regards to other citizens that have homes. The exception would be the health information.

    I see major problems with collecting and distributing health data on these homeless-to-be-tracked unless they sign some kind of proper consent form. Otherwise you're probably violating some kind of doctor/patient priveledge or somethin or other.
  • by CyberGarp ( 242942 ) <> on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @04:48PM (#6737257) Homepage

    Year ago I was homeless for a period of time, due to the fact that I was a teenager, my parents were dead and life is harsh. I fought my way back into society against it's better wishes.

    I actually managed to put my first year of college on credit. Then they figured out I was a bum without a job. Later I paid it back, got scholarships and managed to finish. It wasn't easy, but all this sob story has a point and it ain't for sympathy.

    I was hanging out in a particular location on a regular basis. I'm walking along and a payphone rings. Being bored and curious, I answer it. It was a bill collector! They had tracked me down to a payphone I frequently passed. Now tell me the government needs a new system, just give the homeless a credit card good for a nice sized bad debt. The bill collectors will track them for the government, no new system needed.

  • by dr bacardi ( 48590 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @05:02PM (#6737418) Homepage
    I *knew* I had seen this before... From an article [] in the August 1997 Harpers:
    One of the key provisions of the bill is its five-year lifetime limit on welfare, the enforcement of which will require a vast investment in technology to track individuals, through name changes and geographical moves, for decades on end--creating a veritable Foucaultian panopticon of surveillance and a growth industry for the finger-imagists and information technologists.
    I had remembered the "veritable Foucaultian panopticon" phrase most vividly. I would not be surprised to find Lockheed and/or EDS behind this now as they were then... sounds too similar for mere coincidence.
  • by MoggyMania ( 688839 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @05:02PM (#6737424) Homepage Journal
    Not just some of them, but actually the overwhelming majority. The support forums I run for cognitive disabilities have a number of people that were locked up in mental hospitals by idiots that misdiagnosed them as mentally ill -- and the one thing they *all* agree on is that the hospitals are full of cruel/unusual punishments. They also all said that they would rather be homeless (though most aren't) or dead before sent back to such places. The tales they've told about how they were treated literally make "One Flew Over A Coocoo's Nest" look like Disneyland. On top of that, there's a great deal of misinformation *within* the psychiatric industry. Common "treatments" for some things involve nothing more than physically punishing the person for showing any signs that she/he is different, and rewarding showing no sign of discomfort when exposed to physically painful stimuli. Ironically the aversives inevitably give rise to genuine mental illness in the form of severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. I agree, there should be a structured, *humane* safety net available -- one not based on forcing everybody into a one-size-fits all mold of blind obedience. Right now there's a sick duality: either you get almost no help at all, or you're basically abused. Also, a common problem for people with treatable mental illnesses (bipolar, schizophrenia,etc) is that they are stuck on various forms of financial assistance because they can't afford the medications. If they could afford the drugs, they could work, but because they can't afford them, they can't work.
  • by Embedded Geek ( 532893 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @05:18PM (#6737659) Homepage
    Avoiding the obvious (and questionable taste) jokes about malt liquor and cardboard shelter focus groups, I really have to wonder about this. I mean, whenever there's a list of potential customers, someone in the marketing industry winds up using/exploiting it to go after the "next big demographic."

    And, yes, I know the story indicates it would be a restricted government database, but I have to wonder if someone on Madison Avenue is already working on a privately held equivilent.

    Just an idle thought (or as George Carlin said, "These are the thoughts that kept me out of the good schools")

  • The new reality.... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Felgerkarb ( 695336 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @05:36PM (#6737947)
    Whether or not creating a tracking system for the homeless is a good or bad idea (I think it's a bad one) or infringes on privacy rights or not (I think it does), it is one more step in creating a 'homeless infrastructure.' I think words like 'underclass' are too loaded with emotional and politcal undertones to be used effectively, but I do feel that, in the attempt to provide services to the homeless WITHOUT going the next step to spend the resources to get the homeless off the streets, we have created a system where many people can function for a long LONG time on the street.

    I say this as a comment, without really having a solution. One interesting solution was reported on NPR recently, regarding an apartment building for the 'chronically drunk'....the idea was to give people a home, without the requiring that they stop drinking as a prerequisite. (PLEASE NOTE: I am not suggesting all homeless are drunks)....I would have thought this was a bad idea, but the results were somewhat surprising...yes, many are still drinking, but they are alive, safe, and off the streets, and a surprising number stopped drinking after DECADES of abuse....

    Tracking homeless? probably a bad idea, but if one were to actually use resources to give the homeless viable places they could call home, you would gain the added benefit of knowing where they are...

    end of my $0.02
  • by HiThere ( 15173 ) * <> on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @05:52PM (#6738190)
    You were young, healthy, relatively well educated, and in an upturn economy. How many of those characteristics apply to the average homeless person?

    And that's ignoring the problems of mental health. Which are not minor by any means. E.g., I would personally estimate that many (not most, nor even close to most, but many) suffer from depression. I know that some suffer from advanced schizophrenia. etc.

    Another group of them need, more than anything, a safe place to call a permanent address. (It might be only a lock-box.) Access to some safe place to store a change or two of clothes. Access to a shower and a washer/dryer. The basic minimum that one needs to hold down a job. Or to get one.

    Other groups need other things. Few of them really need to be tracked. That's for somebody else's benefit. You have to really *trust* the government before you would feel that something like that was for your own benefit. And strangely enough, I don't think I know anybody who trusts the government that much. I've been employed by the govt. for 30 years, and I don't trust it that much.

  • by cybercuzco ( 100904 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @06:01PM (#6738324) Homepage Journal
    They already can. The USPS provides PO box service for at most 70 dollars a year for a basic PO box. If you want to improve that, offer free or reduced fee service for those without a permanent address.
  • Re:The problem is... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by btakita ( 620031 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @06:03PM (#6738362) Homepage
    "If you want to be educated go to an NA meeting or volunteer at a soup kitchen."

    Already did.
    I tried helping a homeless person. He did stay with me too. I fed him and cleaned him up a few times and tried to get him into the VA.

    I tried to get him in all of the programs in the city, but nobody would take him. They said he already went there and would leave when his girlfriend, who is addicted to crack, came to get him. The system gave up on him. The social worker told me to stop taking care of him.

    I'm still upset by this whole situation and I was in way over my head.
    Ben, the homeless man, was afraid to die and wanted to see his family. I could not force Ben to make the right choices. It took alot of energy to try to help and convince him. Ultimately, he didn't make the right choices. He continued to drink and did not stick with any program.

    I couldn't force Ben to help himself. Ben needs to make that decision. I could only open the door, not make him walk through it.

    I just feel like there is very little return with alot of the homeless. If we invested more in helping people willing to help themselves (like the poverty in foreign countries), we can get a better humanitarian return.

    I really don't know what to do about people who don't make the right choices. We can't really help them if they don't put forth the effort to help themselves. It's sad.
  • by wikthemighty ( 524325 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @06:51PM (#6738850)

    ...feed the homeless to the hungry!

  • by macdaddy ( 38372 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @07:05PM (#6738986) Homepage Journal
    Hasn't anyone else noticed that this would violate the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996? For those that haven't heard of HIPAA, let me explain:

    The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) was signed into law on August 21, 1996. This law includes important new protections for millions of working Americans and their families who have preexisting medical conditions or might suffer discrimination in health coverage based on a factor that relates to an individual's health. HIPAA's provisions amend Title I of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA) as well as the Internal Revenue Code and the Public Health Service Act and place requirements on employer-sponsored group health plans, insurance companies and health maintenance organizations (HMOs). HIPAA includes changes that:

    limit exclusions for preexisting conditions;

    prohibit discrimination against employees and dependents based on their health status;

    guarantee renewability and availability of health coverage to certain employers and individuals; and

    protect many workers who lose health coverage by providing better access to individual health insurance coverage.

    Here are some useful links:

    HHS - Office for Civil Rights - HIPAA []
    What is HIPAA? []
    HIPAA.ORG []
    HIPAA - Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 []

    The dissemination of medical information without the explicit permission of subject. I don't have a problem with tracking information about how social services are used; that's expected of any service to maintain reliability. However providing medical information to law enforcement violates even the most basic principles of the doctor/patient privilege.

  • Misrepresented facts (Score:3, Interesting)

    by EricTheMad ( 603880 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @07:06PM (#6739009)
    I work with a non-profit organization that provides services for the homeless. We are currently deciding on which HMIS database system to implement for the entire state. And from what I know of the HMIS requirements I can tell you that this arcticle is wildly misrepresenting the facts, and coming to conclusions that just aren't there.

    First of all, the HMIS database isn't meant to track the homeless at all. The government believes that the number people being reported is double the number of homeless that there actually are. So the reason for the databases existance is to get a more accurate count of the number of homeless and to track statistical information.

    Each persons is given a unique identifier that is associated with their information. They are not tracked by SSN. Every 6 months (I believe thats the time frame) a report is sent to HUD that contains the statistical information. There is no way to identify a specific person by looking at this information. HUDs guidelines are very strict on the matters of the persons privacy.

    Also, there is no central database. The state of Utah actually has 3 different sections that would be required to run their own databases. However, we have decided to run the system as a state.

    A person can refuse to give the information or not allow it to be shared with HUD. They can't be denied services if they do so. The majority of these databases are also encrypted to help ensure privacy.

    The suggestion that the Secret Service would have easy access to this information was an assumption on the part of the author of the arcticle. Even if they did have access to it, they wouldn't be able to track the information back to a specific person so it would be rather pointless.

    This could be a great tool for those organizations dedicated to helping the homeless. It will help point out locations and programs that need the most money.
  • by anomaly ( 15035 ) <> on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @08:19PM (#6739533)
    Thankfully my lovely wife has had the courage to address the issues in question.

    With the help of Christ and wise counselors she has overcome them. There are lifetime effects, of course, but she's quite healthy and a wonderful mate to me.
  • by Bodrius ( 191265 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @08:29PM (#6739600) Homepage
    The tracking system is supposed to work based on SSNs.

    If you trust the SSN to track the homeless everyday in this system, why don't you trust it to track the homeless every five years and guarantee uniqueness of entries?

  • by foofoobarbar ( 699677 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @08:30PM (#6739602)
    I take notice of your implied negative averment.

    a) Some people don't have a job per se, they have people work for them instead, such as by being a corporator or proprieter and taking a yearly draw from their organization's earnings, (including non-domestic defacto corporations run by hookers)
    b) Taxation is only by consent, and there is no problem with paying no taxes when they are not receiving services that derive taxes. What part of Taxation without representation do you not understand?
    c) Some people need to smoke pot for physical reasons, while some smoke it for neurological or emotional reasons. I am not anyone's master, I'm my own Master and at that I am a creditor. I do not dictate morality to other people and I do not adminster medical services to people WHEN THEY DON'T ASK FOR MY REGULATION OF SUCH.
    d) Sadly, this is his choice.

    The best thing you can do for your Father-in-Law is pray for his return to good health. Someone that feels the need to be drunk and smoke pot must have a serious medical condition. As for not having a job and not having to pay taxes, there is constitutional reason for such. And for being homeless, I probably met him because I also am homeless.

    I registered on slashdot to respond to some comments on this forum. I am homeless and in my line of work I don't pay taxes because according to the laws established in this Republic there is not lawful authority that derives taxation of my life. For some background, I live in my car and do alot of travel because I work all over America in different parts of the year. Some parts of the year I will be punching cattle in Nebraska or Montana or Wisconsin, while other parts of the year (summer or winter) I'll be hunting or fishing or crabbing or writing code. :) I like it all and as I travel I map all the wireless networks in PostrgreSQL database on my laptop. I choose to be homeless. But don't ask about girlfriends and wives... :)
  • by qtp ( 461286 ) on Tuesday August 19, 2003 @09:16PM (#6739910) Journal
    I really believe that many folks take advantage of the system due to low accountability and the fallacy that substance abuse is entirely a medical problem.

    And if these people fail your accountability test, what then?

    Even if substance abuse is not a medical problem, how do we handle those who clearly have a problem?

    What about the people who choose to not participate at all? Many people do not hold steady jobs, but do not collect benefits either. Often these are the people who are the most discriminated against, as in "they must be getting over somehow?"

    And how do you determine who is "taking advantage" of the system?

    Are the people who make lots of dough from government handouts, white collar crime, and profiteering from unecessary wars that were fought to defend us from non-existant Weopons of Mass Destruction (Cheney, Carlucci, others) that they advised the president about not "scamming the system" to a greater degree than the homeless?

    How can we claim that universal healthcare is unaffordable when our government not only promisses such healthcare to the Iraqis but also gives foriegn aid in the amount of $2.8 Billion to Israel, which also offers universal health care to its citizens?

    Do you think that your father in law really has paid less than $7,000.00 in his whole life as you claim? The maximum benefit for SSI is capped at $558.00 in most states. Or maybe you are talking about the retirement benefit, which is based on how much Social Security tax that you paid during the years that you worked.

(null cookie; hope that's ok)