Communities nationwide are working tirelessly to end homelessness. Recently, these efforts have been concentrated on ending homelessness for two subpopulations—veterans, and the chronically homeless.
To do so, many communities are recognizing the need to develop, maintain, and use a by-name list (BNL), a continually updated snapshot of all individuals experiencing homelessness within that subpopulation in that area.
In order to be an effective tool, a by-name list must be as refined and accurate as possible. However, problems are arising with the validity of BNLs—many communities are ending up with lists that are cluttered and inaccurate due to the fact that it is difficult to determine and document eligibility for both homeless veterans and the chronically homeless. This can defeat the purpose of a by-name list.
There is a solution: collaboration and customization.
When a Continuum of Care (CoC) increases collaboration between service providers through Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) customization, they are able to verify the right information as quickly as possible—ensuring that their by-name lists consist of only eligible persons for each subpopulation. The result is an optimized BNL—a true ‘master list’—ready to be efficiently addressed by CoCs in order to end homelessness among each of these subpopulations.
In this article, we’ll look at:
- An overview of a BNL (what it is, its purpose, and community examples)
- Specific problems in verifying BNLs for veteran and chronic homelessness
- Specific solutions to these problems (collaboration and HMIS customization)
By the time you’re done reading, you will have two ways to refine your by-name list so that you can better address veteran and chronic homelessness in your community. Additionally, at the end of the article, we will invite you to join us for a webinar where we will walk you through how to implement these solutions.
Overview of a By-Name List
What Is a By-Name List?
According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), a by-name list (also called a ‘master list’ or ‘active list’) is a real-time, up-to-date list of all people experiencing homelessness which can be filtered by categories, and shared across agencies. This list is generated with data from outreach, HMIS, federal partners, and any other community shelters and providers working with the specific homeless subpopulation.
While most commonly used for homeless veterans, some CoCs—such as Salt Lake County—have started applying the strategy of BNLs to chronic homelessness as well.
What Is the Purpose of a By-Name List?
Referring to veteran homelessness (but also applicable to chronic homelessness), the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) lists the following purposes and benefits of a master list:
- Ensure all individuals experiencing homelessness within a community are identified and their housing needs are known;
- Track the status and progress toward permanent housing of each of these individuals;
- Coordinate housing and services for each individual household between all community providers;
- Measure progress toward goals and how close a community is to reaching an end to homelessness among the subpopulation;
- Identify key barriers to goal attainment and opportunities to resolve them.
How Have Communities Used By-Name Lists?
The Community Solutions blog describes by-name lists as a “game changer” in a community’s effort to end homelessness, and rightly so. Of the 25 cities involved in the key federal strategy 25 Cities Effort, 20 have developed a BNL that identifies all homeless veterans in their cities.
For CoCs such as Southern Nevada, New Orleans, and Virginia, master lists are cited to have played a huge role in their achievement of ending veteran homelessness. A list like this is the best way to prove a community has reached functional zero. A year later after its achievement, New Orleans is still maintaining this active list, constantly aware of any fluctuations in their population numbers.
If you are new to by-name lists, see National Alliance to End Homelessness’ FAQ, HUD’s sample master list, and VA’s overview document on how to get started with developing, managing and using a master list.
Problems and Solutions in Verifying By-Name Lists for Veteran and Chronic Homelessness
As previously mentioned, the purpose of a by-name list is to provide a clear understanding of each identified homeless person and their specific needs, facilitating the efficient coordination of housing and services. Therefore, as a master list, a BNL by its very nature must be as refined and accurate as possible in order to be effectively used.
However, it can be difficult to verify and document eligibility for both homeless veterans and the chronically homeless. This leads to invalid and therefore ineffective by-name lists.
To address this problem, CoCs must make collaboration through HMIS customization a priority, streamlining the verification process and ensuring their BNLs are as effective as possible.
Below are some of the specific problems and their corresponding solutions for each of these subpopulations.
Regarding this subpopulation, there are challenges in verifying Veteran status and eligibility of a homeless individual.
According to a 2016 research brief from VA, when a non-VA shelter or other social service providers conduct client intake, there are various reasons a homeless individual may falsely self-report or not self-report Veteran status.
For example, an individual may falsely self-report ‘yes’ to Veteran status because they’re aware of the services available exclusively to veterans. On the other hand, an individual may falsely self-report ‘no’ to Veteran status if they are without combat experience or left the military with an other than “Honorable” discharge, not considering themselves to be veterans.
Research shows how this can lead to significant discordance in data. For example, among shelter users in New York City and Columbus, OH, 36 percent of veterans identified through VA records were not positively indicated as veterans in their corresponding shelter databases.
The lack of cohesive communication between the VA and non-VA service providers creates a difficult verification process for this self-reported data. Additionally, the VA usually has limited access to a community’s HMIS in order to determine eligibility.
As a result, when this self-reported data is collected in a CoC’s HMIS, it is often left unverified and therefore produces an inaccurate master list with individuals who 1) are not in fact veterans, or 2) are veterans but are ineligible for VA assistance and should instead be placed on the community waitlist.
Collaboration, as well as HMIS customization, is key to verifying Veteran status as quickly as possible.
In 2015, the VA released a guidance on HMIS “Read-Only” and “Direct-Entry” access, supporting HMIS access requests initiated by local VA leadership and encouraging VA collaboration with HMIS. The VA released a follow-up guidance in 2016, providing VA staff with the legal authority to share information necessary to coordinate referrals and services with community partners. This is a significant step for better collaboration between the VA and communities, especially as it concerns master lists.
It is important for CoCs to capitalize on this new guidance, and HMIS customization is one way to do so.
For example, if you have a customizable HMIS, you could take the following actions:
- Create custom fields (e.g. ‘Verified by VA’ or ‘Eligible for VA Assistance’) on intake forms corresponding to Veteran status and eligibility.
- Customize an access role specific to VA staff.
- VA staff are then able to go into the HMIS and cross-reference HMIS client Veteran status and eligibility against the VA database, completing the corresponding Veteran custom fields.
Once status and eligibility are verified, you can pull the HMIS data into your by-name list, confident that every individual on your BNL is verified, eligible, and ready to be addressed. This is how Southern Nevada has approached the verification of their master lists, contributing to their achievement of ending veteran homelessness.
For this subpopulation, there are challenges in determining whether an individual meets the definition for chronically homeless.
In 2015, HUD established a new definition for “chronically homeless,” clearly describing the specifications for this subpopulation so that they can be prioritized correctly. With this new criteria in place, it has been crucial that CoCs adapt their systems accordingly in order to accurately verify the chronic status of an individual.
However, because an HMIS is only able to collect data for one particular CoC, problems arise when a person’s history of homelessness has occurred across different communities and/or states.
For example, an individual can claim a certain length of time they have been homeless—but if any part of that time was in another state or community, HMIS data will not account for the episodes of homelessness that occurred outside that CoC.
This makes the verification process difficult as a CoC cannot independently verify the chronic status for these individuals. Instead, verification is required on the side of the out-of-state providers.
As a result, communities have BNLs with individuals who are not fully verified to be chronically homeless, invalidating the list.
As with veteran homelessness, collaboration and HMIS customization are crucial to the accurate determination of a person’s chronic status.
With a robust, customizable HMIS referral system, you can collaborate with out-of-state providers to gather the required verification documents for an individual.
For example, you could do the following within your HMIS:
- Set up your programs to require specific documentation for eligibility, directly related to verifying chronic status.
- Upload all documentation that has been accumulated to verify the chronic status of a client (e.g. disability documents, or historical homeless documentation).
Once the client is shown to be document ready within the HMIS, you can pull the HMIS data into your active list, confident that every individual on your BNL is verified as chronically homeless, and is therefore ready to be addressed.
Referencing by-name lists, the Community Solutions blog says it well:
“[Communities] are embracing the sector’s iterative evolution toward better data and showing for the first time what it looks like to end homelessness rigorously and verifiably. Progress on that front is rooted in the constant improvement of systems and practices … This progress, driven by learning and improvement, will help push us forward in our efforts to end veteran and chronic homelessness … ”
By-name lists have revolutionized the way we target and measure veteran and chronic homelessness. When communities steward their BNLs well by verifying the appropriate information through collaboration and HMIS customization, they ensure these lists are as refined and accurate as possible. And in doing so, a by-name list truly becomes a master list—an effective tool for communities to end homelessness among these subpopulations.
Want to learn more?
- Download the white paper on this same topic.