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Colorado Springs-area nonprofit to pilot photo ID card for services to homeless, needy

March 3, 2014 Updated: March 4, 2014 at 7:51 am
photo - (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)
(The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett) 

The Pikes Peak United Way plans to resurrect a photo ID card system that would allow agencies and homeless advocates to track the people they serve, beginning at a small nonprofit in Monument.

In a few weeks, Tri-Lakes Cares will require every person or family seeking its services use a photo ID emblazoned with a barcode. If successful, United Way will make the program available to other nonprofits across region later this year - the first attempt to revive a card system in several years.

Already, a group of nonprofits serving the homeless across seven metro Denver counties view the project as a pilot for implementing similar systems in their region.

"This has been something we've been talking about for awhile," said Gary Sanford, the Metro Denver Homeless Initiative's executive director.

Advocates say the program can cut paperwork and allow caseworkers to better coordinate services - all while culling more information that could be used to apply for more grants.

Past attempts at an ID card system never gained much steam in Colorado Springs - either proving too cumbersome or controversial. Concerns that such programs leave people feeling like second-class citizens dissuaded some, while others feared the program could unfairly limit services.

For example, Catholic Charities of Central Colorado - which operates the city's largest soup kitchen, the Marian House - has historically had little interest in adopting an ID card system, said Mark Rohlena, the nonprofit's president and chief executive.

"We feel that feeding individuals who are hungry is a basic human dignity concept," Rohlena said. "So we're not going to put any barrier to folks receiving food from us in our soup kitchen setting."

The new system will be voluntary for nonprofits - a bow to lingering suspicions toward ID cards, said Anne Beer, the United Way's director of community information systems.

"The United Way has never, ever looked at it as mandatory," Beer said. "This is something that needs to benefit clients and agencies.

"... From my perspective, it ought to meet their business needs. If it's not, why are we doing it?"

Tri-Lakes moves forward

The laminated ID cards cost little to make and bear the holder's name, date of birth, picture, a barcode and the date it was issued.

Each time someone wants to get food, clothing or other help at the Tri-Lakes Cares facility, 235 N. Jefferson St., they must scan the barcode, which will link to a database that the nonprofit compiled over the course of 2013.

The database tracks each client's personal information - age, social security number and caseworker notes - as well as how many times that person sought help, and what the nonprofit gave them each time.

It represents the latest evolution in Tri-Lakes Cares' push to track its programs.

After 30-years of handwritten files that limited its ability to gather data for grant applications, the agency last year began using the Homeless Management Information Systems - an electronic database created by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Nonprofits can use it to track clients' personal information.

Tri-Lakes also had tried sign-in sheets and more recently has used rudimentary numbered cards to track clients.

"I felt like we were in the stone age," said Haley Chapin, Tri-Lakes Cares' executive director. "I don't know how we ever managed it."

Chapin framed the switch as a means to fast-track people to assistance by eliminating cumbersome forms. Meanwhile, nonprofit workers can better track which services people receive, and which ones they miss.

"Maybe they don't know about a certain program, or they forgot, or they haven't been coming lately," Chapin said. "We would be able to see what they are doing, and what they're not doing."

Also, she said the cards alert volunteers when clients break the nonprofit's rules by seeking services too often, though she said that "hasn't been a huge problem."

Already, the nonprofit's use of the homeless management database has allowed it to learn how many veterans it serves - opening the door to many more grants geared toward discharged soldiers and airmen, she said.

Paperwork reduced

The ability to cut down on paperwork appeals to Sanford, because it plays into the "rapid entry" strategy - allowing a person to seek help at one place, but then easily receive it from many others.

Theoretically, he said, if the program expands, a person who applied for a card one night at a homeless shelter could visit a workforce center the next day, where job counselors could more quickly match that person's needs to available jobs.

The Homeless Management Information System also allows organizations that receive federal funding to report how they spent the money.

About 15 organizations in the Pikes Peak region use the system - two-thirds of which are required to do so for federal grant reporting purposes.

The management system allows nonprofits to share some of their clients' personal data - name, age, social security number - amongst each other, though nonprofits can't see what other agencies the client visited, Beer said. Nonprofits may want to share more detailed information as the card system expands, though that would require client permission.

"That protection is always there," Beer said.

While some homeless advocates have previously advocated to make using the card mandatory for receiving services, Beer wants each nonprofit to make that decision.

Skepticism remains

Colorado Springs tried an ID card system about five years ago called RapidTrak at the Salvation Army's R.J. Montgomery Center, but the program barely took off. Some nonprofit leaders - including Catholic Charities's former president - vowed never to adopt a program that required a card to access food.

The ID system proved too cumbersome because people kept losing the cards, said Gene Morris, the homeless shelter's director.

"It was way too expensive," he said.

Some organizations remain hesitant about the concept. Ecumenical Social Ministries a few years ago agreed to issue cards, but not use them.

The agency spent two years creating a database that is catered to its services, and it is not compatible with the United Way's ID card system, said Carolyn McDole, the nonprofit's executive director.

Advocates say a unified database is the end goal of any ID card system - allowing clients to move seamlessly between organizations for help.

But if nonprofits can track users they can withhold services, such as for "double-dipping" between agencies, said Steve Brown, director of Westside CARES.

"I don't think that's valuable," Brown said. "The scarcity of resources is a reality in this town. That kind of cross-checking is not going to solve the scarcity."

Also, if one nonprofit marks in a person's online file that they misbehaved, it leaves other nonprofits in the uncomfortable position of being enforcers, he said. He remains "guarded" about the concept.

"It could add value to the way services are provided in the community," Brown said. "But it is not a panacea or a solution to all the problems."

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