The homelessness individuals and families information system: a case study in Canadian capacity building (1).
Subject: Homelessness (Social aspects)
Homelessness (Economic aspects)
Authors: Peressini, Tracy
Engeland, John
Pub Date: 12/22/2004
Publication: Name: Canadian Journal of Urban Research Publisher: Institute of Urban Studies Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2004 Institute of Urban Studies ISSN: 1188-3774
Issue: Date: Winter, 2004 Source Volume: 13 Source Issue: 2
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Geographic: Geographic Scope: Canada Geographic Name: Canada; Canada Geographic Code: 1CANA Canada
Accession Number: 129248100
Full Text: Abstract

This is a case study of a multi-stage collaborative process spearheaded by Canada Housing and Mortgage Corporation from 1995 to 2001 to address the lack of high quality and reliable information about the homeless in Canada. The community-based collaborative efforts and ground-up process used to develop the Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (HIFIS) are detailed, as are some of the obstacles and difficulties encountered in attempting to achieve consensus over the design, intent and purpose of the tool. HIFIS was built on a series of broad-based coalitions which included: government officials, university researchers, service providers, front-line workers and the homeless themselves. HIFIS is an administrative tool designed to assist shelter providers to collect longitudinal, multi-location, standardized data about consumers, with the goal of improving service coordination, program development and public policy. The primary concerns identified throughout the collaborative process were client anonymity and confidentiality, as well as control and ownership of the information collected. Finally, the positive outcomes and challenges associated with creating and sustaining a nation-wide effort to build capacity in the homeless service providing community are discussed.

Keywords: Homelessness, Data Collection and Management, Canadian Shelters, Capacity Building


Il s'agit d'une etude de cas portant sur un processus de collaboration en plusieurs etapes chapeaute de 1995 a 2001 par la Societe canadienne d'hypotheques et de logement qui avait pour but de combler une lacune en matiere d'information fiable et de grande qualite sur les sans-abri du Canada. Les efforts de collaboration communautaires et le processus issu de la base utilise pour mettre sur pied le Systeme d'information sur les personnes et les familles sans abri (SISA) sont decrits en detail tout comme certains obstacles et difficultes qui ont marque les tentatives effectuees pour en arriver a un consensus relativement a la conception, au but et a l'utilisation de cet outil. Le SISA a ete monte a partir d'une serie de coalitions diversifiees formdes notamment de fonctionnaires gouvernementaux, de chercheurs universitaires, de fournisseurs de services, de travailleurs de premiere ligne et d'itinerants. Le SISA est un outil administratif concu pour aider les centres d'hebergement a recueillir des donnaes longitudinales et normalisees, provenant de plusieurs endroits, au sujet des utilisateurs, le but etant d'ameliorer la coordination des services, l'elaboration des programmes et la politique officielle. Les principales preoccupations soulevees tout au long du processus de collaboration avaient trait a l'anonymat des clients et a la confidentialite des renseignements les concernant, ainsi qu'a la gestion et a la propriete des donnees recueillies. Enfin, on commente les resultats favorables obtenus et les difficultes qui ont marque la creation et le maintien d'un effort national devant developper le potentiel des organismes de services aux sans-abri.

Mots eles : Itinerance, Abris Canadienne, capacite-batiment


Over the last two decades governments world-wide have recognized the need for collaborative efforts to integrate the knowledge, expertise and experience of researchers, social service practitioners and policy makers into a unified systemic approach that provides a framework to address the complex needs and well-being of vulnerable populations (Weible et al., 2004; Smith, 2003; Thomas, 2001; Thomas, 1999; Mandell, 1999; Eade, 1997; Chaskin, Joseph and Chipenda-Dansokho, 1997; Mulroy and Shay, 1997). Yet, the concepts of community development, capacity building and, especially, collaboration are comparatively new to the community providing services and shelter to the homeless in Canada. In many regards this Canadian service providing community has operated autonomously, rarely engaging in collaborative efforts to address the problem of homelessness collectively locally, regionally or nationally. Because they rely on charitable donations and compete for scarce funding at the provincial and municipal levels, homeless shelter and service providers throughout the 20th century have had to develop, operate and sustain themselves in relative independence and isolation of each other (HRDC, 2001; Chekki, 1999; Miller et al., 1995). One of the outcomes of this has been a notable lack of regular, reliable and comparable information about the consumers of homeless services and programs in Canada (Peressini, 2004).

The Homeless Individuals and Families Information System (H1FIS) developed from a CMHC initiative to carry out research that would culminate in the production of standardized data and information about the homeless across Canada. As Eade notes, "... information is vital to participation and empowerment, and hence to capacity building" (1997: 67). The development of HIFIS, therefore, represents a case study in bi-level capacity building. First, as an administrative tool, it has been designed to help policy makers and shelter agencies to collect the data needed to better address the needs of the local, regional and national homeless population. Secondly, the data and information generated by HIFIS can be employed as a means to empower homeless people to participate in the development of flexible and responsive programs and services that meet their needs. HIFIS, then, represents a long-term investment in the homeless and the people and organizations who serve them, as well as a commitment to facilitating an approach to data collection that empowers the homeless to better shape the forces that affect their lives (Weible et al, 2004; Smith, 2003; Thomas, 2001; Mandell, 1999; Eade, 1997). Carried out over six years between 1995 and 2001, the design and development of HIFIS is an applied example of how community-based agencies, municipalities, higher level governments, universities, as well as the homeless themselves, can work together to develop high-quality data germane to service, program and policy development. The goal of this project was to develop a tool that could be used nation-wide, therefore, the collaborative process included stakeholders and partners from shelters, service providers, community organizations and all levels of government from across the country. While there are examples of collaborative efforts to build capacity and develop services and programs in local communities, no similar collaborative process has been attempted at the national level in Canada. Thus, the bottom-up strategy, working first at the local level, then gradually building to include national stakeholders in the homeless service providing community represents a unique approach and contribution to the literature on community collaboration and capacity building (Weible et al., 2004; Smith, 2003; Thomas, 2001; Mandell, 1999; Eade, 1997).

This article provides a sketch of the stages involved in developing and testing HIFIS. The collaborative process began with the Homeless Experts Workshop, the initial consultation with homeless experts from across North America, which resulted in the recommendations which instigated the "comprehensive community initiative" that culminated in HIFIS (Chaskin, 2001: 291). Each of the early stages of the development and design of HIFIS were coordinated and conducted by community-based coalitions, such as Ottawa's Alliance to End Homelessness, which consisted of a variety of members, including: government officials, service providers, front-line service providers, as well as the homeless themselves. It is important to note that the homeless were involved in each of the early phases of the collaborative process and were instrumental in making certain that the final product ensured the anonymity and confidentiality of the information acquired via HIFIS. Next, we outline the local and national collaborations and the consensus building activities associated with the field-testing of HIFIS. The homeless were also involved in this stage through their participation in the use of the tool in shelters across Canada. Finally, we discuss the positive outcomes and challenges involved in undertaking a people-centered, national capacity building program of research and development.

First Steps: The Homeless Experts Workshop

By the mid-1990s, there were more questions about Canada's homeless than answers. How many homeless are there? Who is homeless? What methods for estimating or counting the homeless produce the most accurate and precise data and information? These were (and still are) some of the basic questions facing experts, government officials and policy makers in Canada at the time that the CMHC began to tackle the issue of homelessness. As researchers have demonstrated, how homelessness is defined affects not only the demographic characteristics of the population, but also the estimation of the number and incidence of homelessness in a given region (Fitzgerald et al., 2001: 121). Therefore, it seemed logical for CMHC to begin by building a consensus regarding the definition of the term (Kondratas, 1991). This was the initial reason that the Homeless Experts workshop (2) was organized. The workshop resulted in three overarching recommendations. First, in order to successfully obtain representative, reliable and valid data and information on the homeless, any endeavor must be firmly rooted in a comprehensive community initiative. That is, obtaining "good" data and information on homelessness requires the collaboration of all groups, organizations and interested parties involved in serving the homeless, including the homeless themselves. Second, this collaboration must be extended to the process of building a consensus around definitions and methods. And, finally, any initiative must be precisely documented in order to verify and evaluate procedures, methods and results.

Following these recommendations, CMHC decided to follow a capacity-building approach and take on a leadership role in developing HIFIS as a comprehensive community-based initiative to develop a standardized system of collecting information about the homeless in Canada. The next steps in a multiphase process of developing HIFIS were to consult and collaborate, first locally and then nationally, with the shelter-providing community in order to determine the willingness and commitment to develop and use a common administrative data base system, and to dedicate the time to go through the consensus building process to establish the system's common data elements and functionality.

Stage I: Local Consensus Building (3)

The first stage of the collaborative process took place at the local level via a partnership with the Data Collection Working Group (Data Group) of the Ottawa-Carleton Alliance to End Homelessness (4) in the City of Ottawa. This stage was coordinated by Tim Aubry, (Department of Psychology, University of Ottawa), in conjunction with CMHC. Working together, the Data Group arrived at an operational definition of homelessness for the project and specified the basic data elements required to produce the type and quality of information that could be used by homeless shelter and service providers in the day-to-day provision of the services. After a touchy round of discussions that centered on the range and type of shelters that should be encompassed in the working definition, the Data Group recommended the following definition: "The subgroup of the homeless population who stay at least one night in one of the city's temporary shelters. Shelters are defined as emergency housing units intended for single adults, youths, and families who are in need of shelter" (Aubry et al., 1996: 6). While this definition is limited because it under-represents certain subgroups of homeless persons (such as, anyone not living in an urban center, street people, women and families fleeing violence, those doubled-up with family and friends, and those living in substandard housing), the group decided that it is advantageous in terms of its practicality and ease of use.

As with the Experts Workshop, the task of deriving a standardized definition of homelessness proved to be the first obstacle in building a consensus around the purpose, nature and shape that the administrative tool would take. The Data Group, however, in laboring through the full range of possible definitions, did finally arrive at a consensus. They agreed to disagree on who or what population group (or groups) properly constitute the homeless, and, in embracing their diversity of opinions and views, were able to move past the issue to acknowledge that, in the context of building an administrative tool, the problem of definition needed to be broached by way of an applied or practical approach. In other words, the issue of defining who, ideally, is homeless was sidestepped in favor of an applied definition that reflected the characteristics and traits of the consumer population that the information system would apply to. The group found that in order to move the process forward the goal of establishing a broad-based, theoretical definition had to be set aside in favor of a working definition that reflected only those homeless persons who reside in the shelters that the information system would be implemented in. By doing so, the group was able to agree on the point that, because the majority of homeless people make use of emergency shelters at some point in time, the majority of the population--both theoretical and practical would eventually be captured by a definition that focused on shelter users. Thus, they concluded that the above noted definition was the most appropriate and functional given their mandate. Finally, because of the definition chosen, the Data Group recommended that the initial development of the information system be optimized for use by shelter providers; building a range of flexibility in the design of the management tool so that it could be used by a broader array of homeless service providers at a later date.

The group next tackled the topic of client anonymity and confidentiality as well as the issue of data ownership. These topics turned out to be the single most contentious issues that were raised at every stage in the development of HIFIS. The reoccurring nature of the issue of client protection reflects the strong commitment of Canadian service providers to be gatekeepers for their clients. Fundamentally, the issue arises out of a universal service mandate focused on ensuring respect for and attending to the privacy and dignity of the homeless, a mandate more strongly rooted in the provision of services to the homeless in Canada than in the United States. A key outcome of the commitment of the service providing community to this issue throughout the collaborative process was a multi-layer system of security that has been directly built into the administrative tool. At each stage the collaboration culminated in an additional layer of security being added to the tool. The software itself incorporates the latest advances in data encryption to ensure that the data can be shared at the national level, while maintaining the privacy and anonymity of the client's information, and retaining ownership and control of the data at the local level. The security measures built into HIFIS include: high-level data encryption, encryption of client's personal information when sharing data, security training for shelter staff and management, and the establishment of HIFIS as a community-owned initiative, controlled by a local coordinator heading up a committee of shelter executives.

Next, the Data Group interviewed and consulted with members of the service providing community and a small group of municipal housing officials in each province. In collaborating with the local agencies, the Data Group sought to establish the type of data elements required for program and policy decision-making, as well as to get feedback on the concerns about data sharing as they pertain to the issue of client confidentiality. Based on these consultations data elements were chosen to reflect the information needs related to shelter operation, service planning and policy formation, while respecting the rights and the privacy of consumers. Unlike the issues of definitions and security, the common data elements of the tool were relatively easy to identity and agree upon and no major obstacles arose to hinder this aspect of the groups' collaborative efforts.

Stage II: National Consensus Building (5)

Stage one provided a rough outline of the components to be included in an information system, as well as, a clear idea of the issues of primary concern to the shelter providing community: privacy; confidentiality; system flexibility; and technical support for the information system. The next step, then, was to broaden the scope of the collaboration to the national homeless shelter community. SPR Associates Inc. was commissioned to conduct a national survey of shelter providers to evaluate the feasibility of developing HIFIS for use in shelters across the country and to develop a framework of specifications for such a proposed system. The feasibility study obtained information from representatives from 62 shelters across Canada.

The survey results indicated that shelter providers were interested in and would use HIF1S; they thought that it would be beneficial, and that they would participate in a pilot test. Given the positive feedback obtained, SPR recommended that HIFIS be developed with shelter input at each stage. They also advised that an advisory committee consisting of members from shelters and provincial, territorial and municipal funding bodies, be formed to oversee the administrative tool. Finally, they suggested that the advisory committee be charged with the task of working through some of the central design and technical issues that had been raised in local and regional consultations, including: the scope of participation (e.g. do all shelters have to participate in the information system for it to be useful); the extent of on-the-ground developmental work with communities; and the method of client identification to be used to ensure client anonymity while still allowing for the end-user to track cases.

The national survey also provided detailed input and feedback from shelter staff, volunteers and consumers. These stakeholders raised similar issues and concerns to those of the service providing community in the first stages. The national survey participants also raised the questions of: how the system would be administered from shelter to shelter (e.g. how the data would be collected), how the information would be recorded (e.g. pen and paper or directly into the computer), how the data would be stored and maintained, how the data would be secured, how the client's privacy would be guaranteed, how the shelter provider would obtain informed consent, how the data would be reported, and how the system would be administered and managed. While this phase proved to be productive in terms of community participation and feedback, the real process and work of national consensus building would begin with the formation of the National User Work Group and the participation of the national shelter community in the actual creation and development of the HIFIS software.

Stage III: Constructing HIFIS (6)

Following the national survey, CMHC formed a National User Work Group (National Group), whose purpose was to establish the detailed specifications for HIFIS and guide the software developer in the creation and testing of HIFIS. The National Group consisted of two groups of partners (7): (1) a primary group made up of representatives from all types of shelters and (2) a secondary team of partners from municipal and provincial governments, who are responsible for addressing homelessness in their jurisdictions. The team members of both groups of the National Group were drawn from communities in each of Canada's regions, including: Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, and Vancouver. Shelter team delegates were responsible for representing the interests and needs of their own organization, as well as those of the other shelters in their region. Government team delegates, in addition to representing social program and policy system design requirements, were responsible for organizing and spearheading their local HIFIS initiatives. The involvement of representatives from across Canada was essential to the process of building a network of partners, crafting a consensus on the content and structure of HIFIS, and engendering a commitment to it's implementation and use from the ground up.

After a series of face-to-face meetings with its primary partners, and a number of teleconferences with its secondary partners, CMHC then dedicated the better part of 1999 to HIFIS' development. The design process was begun by engaging a software developer and facilitating a three-day Joint Application Design (JAD) session of the primary shelter partners in January 1999. At the JAD, the shelter delegates: defined the data capture, storage and reporting functions required to handle day-to-day shelter operations (book in, book out, special client needs, bed occupancy, billing, etc.); identified and constructed standardized questions and responses for client information; and built security features into the software that entailed the use of unique client identifiers to protect client privacy. Using this information, the software developers spent the spring of 1999 developing the prototype of HIFIS, which was then evaluated and tested in shelters in Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto. Following the preliminary tests, and a second two day JAD, the software was tailored and refined according to the feedback and information obtained in the site tests, resulting in the first version of HIFIS.

Stage IV: Field Testing HIFIS

In January 2000 the debugging of HIFIS was completed and a senior systems analyst from EDS (one of Canada's largest professional IT service companies) was contracted to assist with the pilot test. Teaching materials were developed to help shelter providers with the implementation and use of the tool. At the same time, EDS adopted HIFIS as a corporate community initiative project and donated time, training facilities and technical assistance to the program, while CMHC and HRDC provided the hardware and technical support to the shelters participating in the pilot test.

HIFIS was launched in several communities throughout 2000. HIFIS coordinators conducted site visits to coordinate with shelters and to assess their readiness to begin using the tool. CMHC and the HIFIS coordinators then worked together to train the staff and front-line workers in the use of the tool. Finally, shelters self-identified the type of clientele they were serving and developed unique identifier codes which were used in conjunction with their local community codes (8) to protect the confidentiality of homeless client records and facilitate the use of HIFIS as a research tool.

Three different types of training sessions were delivered to each community. The HIFIS Overview Session was designed for delivery to shelter executive directors, senior shelter staff, key municipal and provincial officials and ancillary homeless support organizations, as well as other community organizations, such as the United Way. This general session explained how the collection of standardized data could provide communities with a basic understanding of their homeless population and provide them with the capacity to track and monitor changes in the size and characteristics of the population in real-time, as well as over-time. The session also included a presentation on how HIFIS facilitates the collaboration of the local shelter providing community and allows them to better coordinate service provision amongst themselves, and leads to improved community-level planning and program implementation, monitoring and evaluation, and to policy and program improvements to more effectively address and reduce homelessness. The second type of training was targeted to shelter intake workers. It was designed to walk staff through all of HIFIS' client-related functions; e.g., opening and using a client file to record personal health and other information, assigning and changing a client's bed, and booking out a client. Shelter workers were also instructed on the basic reporting functions of HIFIS (e.g., bed occupancy reports) and on the appropriate use of HIFIS to ensure client confidentiality. The third type of training was designed to provide the shelter site representatives and their local HIFIS coordinator with all the basic training and guidance required to begin a pilot test. It was delivered only once per community to each shelter's site representative. The site representatives received a demonstration of the built-in and customized reporting functions of HIFIS. They were instructed on the procedures for working with their local HIFIS coordinator to implement HIFIS in their shelter and on the logistics of the pilot test including, how to install HIFIS, prepare and train their staff to use it, and on system maintenance and backup procedures. A critical part of their training focused on the system's security features, the procedures for ensuring client confidentiality and exporting aggregated shelter data (e.g., data for which all client identifying information has been removed) to the local HIFIS coordinator. Finally, the shelter site representatives received detailed information on the range of control they and their shelter had over HIFIS.

The first pilot test of HIFIS was conducted in Calgary, in February, with a three-day program of intensive training, and demonstrations of the HIFIS software for the City of Calgary, its shelters and their key staff. Following these sessions, the City of Calgary led a committee of shelters to design and coordinate a community-based initiative with the assistance of technical support from EDS. Based on the success of Calgary, HIFIS was launched at the second pilot test site in March in the City of Ottawa. In late April 2000, a third pilot test site of HIFIS by the City of Vancouver got underway. Vancouver's initiative was quite distinctive given the unique partnerships that were formed in order to test HIFIS. First, two different provincial ministries, B.C. Housing and the Ministry of Social Development and Economic Security, collaborated to manage the role of the HIFIS coordinator. Second, the B.C. representatives of the federal government departments of the Status of Women and HRDC partnered together to lobby for women's transition houses to be included in Vancouver's pilot test of HIFIS. As the inclusion of women's transition houses had not been raised in any previous initiative, these unique partnerships became the first test of HIFIS' flexibility and responsiveness to local community needs. Following this, pilot tests of HIFIS in Winnipeg and Halifax commenced in late May and late June respectively. The Halifax pilot test entailed the first time shelter staff were directly provided with hands-on training with the help of the local HIFIS coordinator, the Nova Scotia Department of Community Services. In late July, the largest scale trial of HIFIS began in Toronto, with five days of training sessions being attended by staff from over 30 shelters, including some representatives from the Greater Toronto Area (e.g., the Region of Peel).

The last scheduled pilot test was to take place in Montreal, Quebec in 2000. At this time, however, CMHC provided a demonstration of the software and its uses to the local community, but was forced to delay the launch of HIFIS until a local coordinator could be found. In early 2001 the Societe d'habitation du Qudbec volunteered to act as HIFIS coordinator and CMHC returned to Montreal to pilot the software and provide training. In the interim, at the request of the National Secretariat on Homelessness, CMHC launched HIFIS at two additional centers, Hamilton (October, 2000) and Edmonton (November, 2000).

Throughout the pilot testing phase, CMHC's overarching goal was to create a synergy between themselves, local and regional government and the service providing community. Based on their experiences in the initial development stages of the software, CMHC found that in order to build a commitment to HIFIS everyone had to participate in the developmental process from the ground up and contribute whatever resources they could to it. From CMHC's perspective this meant that they not only dedicated and absorbed the costs of the time and human resources to develop the software, but also donated the software and provided on-site training in the local shelters. From the perspective of the service providing community, the commitment meant allocating their already scarce and overtaxed human and fiscal resources. The participating shelters and their staff dedicated their time and committed to learning HIFIS. Finally, municipal or provincial governments committed considerable personnel to facilitating the process and restructuring their working relationships with the community via their appointed local HIFIS coordinators. Ultimately, the success of HIFIS' year-long introduction and pilot test was due to the time, effort and commitment of local shelter providers and their communities. In all, HIFIS was introduced to over 100 shelters in eight of Canada's largest cities. The pilot test demonstrated that HIFIS could meet the requirements of shelters of all kinds in all parts of the country. The pilot test also successfully gathered ground-up input from shelters about software glitches and potential enhancements of the software that were identified through the feedback of HIFIS users.

Discussion & Conclusions

The year long pilot test of HIFIS was instrumental in garnering widespread support for its implementation in the shelter community, as well as among working level municipal and provincial staff across the country. Through their collaborative efforts with community and government agencies and organizations, CMHC also created a base of support among front-level staff in numerous federal government departments, proving that with time and patience bureaucratic and organizational boundaries can be overcome. CMHC developed and secured support for HIFIS from the National Secretariat on Homelessness and HRDC as the most cost-effective tool available to help provide a solid foundation for policy and program work to address homelessness. At the end of 2000, HIFIS was transferred to the National Secretariat on Homelessness (9). The process of transferring HIFIS to the National Secretariat took up the better part of 2001. Currently, the National Secretariat on Homelessness has completely taken possession of HIFIS and runs its own comprehensive program to make HIFIS available to shelters across Canada (10).

In the process of its year-long pilot test, we learned two primary lessons about creating, engendering and sustaining a comprehensive community initiative. First and foremost, the most critical lesson learned was the patience, effort and time that was required to do the "people work" involved in getting HIFIS in the field and garnering support for it in what has often been described as a wary and guarded service providing community (Weible et al., 2004; Smith, 2003; Thomas, 2001; Mandell, 1999; Eade, 1997; Peressini et al., 1996). Invariably the amount of time needed to build bridges and partnerships in a local community in order to get the service providers to consider using the software and then to implement it was always a challenging and time-consuming undertaking. In retrospect, we would have put much more emphasis on building a firmer base of support at the outset amongst the various government partners, who provided the most costly resource associated with HIFIS--the personnel for the position of the local community coordinator. This was abundantly illustrated by the delay in introducing HIFIS in Montreal, and by the failure of HIFIS to take off in Winnipeg where it was unclear whether or not the mandate for the homeless was at the provincial or municipal level, eventually leading to the municipal level not being able to commit its time and effort into working with the city's shelters.

The second major lesson that was learned was that the burden of implementing what could be termed a "high-tech" administrative tool at the grassroots level was difficult to assess and, often times, underestimated. Despite the fact that HIFIS was designed to be user-friendly and to be used in a non-technical environment, the challenge of modifying some shelters' existing administrative systems to work with HIFIS became an overwhelming obstacle that could not be overcome without additional professional IT and financial resources. In some cases, the type of services provided and clientele served were simply incompatible with HIFIS as in the case of programs that do not provide overnight shelter. Furthermore, we learned that in some instances, even with additional IT resources and support the staff and administrators in the shelters simply were not ready for such a change. For example, modifying an existing system to work with HIFIS where the shelter did not want to give up its existing system proved to be a barrier that simply could not be overcome, partially because the task fell outside the scope of the project's research funding. This finding, once again, reinforced the importance of the bottom-up approach and the primary lesson learned throughout ... the successful implementation of a comprehensive community initiative requires the cooperation and collaboration of all parts and levels of the community. Any kind of intransigence, inflexibility, or lack of or withholding of resources, can prove to be the difference that makes the difference. In short, this type of initiative is hinged on the people involved and their readiness to work in concert with each other and commit the necessary resources to achieve the desired goal; in this case, the implementation of HIFIS at the grassroots level. The importance of the role of the individuals and their willingness to work together cannot be understated, nor can the time, effort and patience required to ensure that all partners' needs and interests are incorporated in the initiative.

In conclusion, in tracing the steps needed to create, develop and implement HIFIS this article has outlined a unique community initiative. HIFIS represents the culmination of a meticulous 6-year process of collaboration and consensus building in the homeless shelter providing community across Canada. Using a ground-up approach, ideas, input, and feedback of frontline organizations were integrated into a well-crafted information system that can be used by every level of individual and organization interested in addressing and studying the problem of homelessness in Canada (Weible et al., 2004; Smith, 2003; Thomas, 2001; Mandell, 1999; Eade, 1997). While the notion of engendering cooperation and collaboration at a grassroots level is not new (see for example, Ward, 1989), what is unique about this grassroots approach is that it broadened the scope of community organizing to include all interested parties--from the homeless, to front line staff and volunteers, to social researchers and experts on the issue of homelessness, to government officials and policy analysts interested in creating policy and programs to better serve the homeless population. As such then, HIFIS represents both a people-centered approach for generating useful and credible information about the homeless and a community coalition method for addressing the information needs and requirements of those developing policies and programs for other vulnerable populations in Canada (Weible et al, 2004; Smith, 2003; Thomas, 2001; Mandell, 1999; Eade, 1997).


(1) This research was funded by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). The contents and views are, however, the responsibility of the authors and CMHC accepts no responsibility for them or any consequence arising from the reader's use of the information described herein. For further information concerning this program of research, please contact: John Engeland, Policy & Research Division, Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation, Ottawa, Ontario, Tel. (613) 748-2799, E-mail:

(2) The Expert's Workshop was organized by the Center for Applied Social Research, Faculty of Social Work, and University of Toronto and was conducted in June 1995. For a detailed summary of the Homeless Experts Workshop see: Peressini, T., McDonald, L., and Hulchanski, D. (1996).

(3) For a detailed summary of Phase One in HIFIS' development see: Aubry, T., Currie, S. and C. Pinsent (1996). Development of a Homeless Data Collection and Management System: Phase One. Ottawa: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

(4) The Alliance represents a community development initiative that is composed of 31 (seven shelter and 24 non-shelter) community agencies and organizations including emergency shelters, and municipal and provincial governments with an interest in program and policy development on homelessness.

(5) For a detailed summary of this phase in HIFIS' development see: SPR Associates Inc. (1999). A Report on A Feasibility Study for a Pilot Information System for Canadian Shelters for Homeless Individuals and Families.. Ottawa: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

(6) The remainder of this article has been directly based on: original tapes of the Vancouver HIFIS press conference, and training sessions delivered in Vancouver, HIFIS training aids, the HIFIS Pilot Testing Phase, Final Recommendations Document, March 2001, the HIFIS Getting Started Installation and Configuration Guide, and also the HIFIS Fact Sheet: The Homeless Individuals and Families Information System. Ottawa: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, 2001.

(7) For a complete list of participants at each phase of the collaboration, please consult the individual reports noted in these footnotes or contact: John Engeland, Policy & Research Division, Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation, Ottawa, Ontario. E-mail: Tel. (613)748-2799.

(8) The community codes were based on Statistics Canada's Standard Geographical Codes. For further information about these codes refer to: Statistics Canada. (1996). GeoSuite--1996 Census. Ottawa: Statistics Canada. Catalogue#92F0085XCB.

(9) The total cost of developing and testing the HIFIS software from 1995 to 2000 was under $500,000.

(10) To find out more about the latest version of HIFIS and/or the current status of the National Secretariat on Homelessness' HIFIS initiative, please contact the National HIFIS Coordinator, Monica Hourihan, at (819) 994-0567 or by email at


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Tracy Peressini

Renison College

University of Waterloo

John Engeland

Policy & Research Division

Canada Mortgage & Housing Corporation
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