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Nobody likes answering the same set of personal questions multiple times, especially if they are dealing with the stresses associated with a lack of employment, food and housing.

That’s why the Missoula Human Resource Council recently launched a new computerized housing referral system that is designed to streamline the process that helps people in need find a place to live and connect to other available services.

The Community Housing Referral and Information System, also known as cHris, will allow people in need to provide information to a single agency, which will then share it with other agencies using the computer system. No longer will people have to go through multiple interviews at multiple agencies.

The system will also allow agencies to take a broad, data-informed approach to looking at housing insecurity and creating solutions. Missoula and west-central Montana will now have a single point of entry into housing and other services that are identified as a primary need in Missoula’s 10-year-plan to end homelessness, a program called Reaching Home, which is still in its first year.

“The website is kind of a community resource,” said Reaching Home coordinator Michael Moore. “Let’s say, for example, you are a single mom and you recently became homeless because your kid had a medical issue. You are bankrupt and you lost your housing and you’ve never gone to a service provider. You don’t have any food so you have to go to the food bank. You can’t go to the doctor, so you go to Partnership Health Center. You go to the YWCA for other services. But the sheer number of questions and places you have to go is overwhelming. A lot of times, it wore people down and they gave up. The outcome of that is a lot of people didn’t get a lot of available services. They surrendered because of over-questioning.”

Moore said the system will now allow people to answer one set of questions and get registered at every partner agency, and the data will be shared.

“The single point of entry idea basically means there’s no wrong door, so if you went to the Poverello Center or the food bank you would get to a system where you would be registered everywhere you went,” he said. “Before, everyone had their own list of questions or proprietary system. Now, when you run through the system, it takes about 10 or 12 minutes and you don’t have to answer the same stupid 40 questions every time. That’s a huge thing for people looking for services.”

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The information sharing will also help service providers, Moore said.

“On the service provider side of things, this will create a wealth of data we’ve never had and a number-crunching ability we’ve never had,” he said. “The good thing about that is anytime you make a huge list, you can see where you are doing a good job. But the more important thing is seeing where you’re not doing a good job. It’s a gap finder for us. It will tell us where people are coming from, when they were last housed and what were their reasons for becoming homeless. Was it generational poverty or an acute medical incident or something else?”

Moore said that if agencies see a trend that points to, for example, medical bankruptcies or divorces as being a cause of homelessness, then solutions can be worked toward.

“It will really help us be a little more refined in our approach to things,” he said. “All service providers understand the homeless demographic is as diverse and complex as any demographic in Missoula. It gives us a more accurate portrayal of who it is we’re serving.”

Moore called the new system a “community achievement” and said that a number of agencies and hardworking individuals made it happen.

The cHris website is expected to increase efficiency for human services agencies and speed up access for clients. The system is hosted and coordinated by the Human Resource Council District XI, and five other agencies have signed on as partners: Mountain Home, YWCA, Women’s Opportunity and Resource Development, the Missoula Housing Authority and the Poverello Center.

“We stand in gracious debt to the Human Resource Council and all the people from local organizations working to make this happen,” Moore said.

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There are many complex factors that create housing insecurity and barriers to its solution: Unemployment, underemployment, food insecurity, high medical costs and low wages are just a few reasons. The cHris website will provide agencies that work with people experiencing housing insecurity with a secure space where information can be entered and shared. Once analyzed, the information can identify gaps in services as well as changes and trends in housing.

Missoula-based consultant Maxine Jacobson of Praxis designed the system and it was built by Chuck Irestone of Irestone Consulting. Casey Gallagher of the Human Resource Council’s 2-1-1 system will manage the program.

The HRC used money from its Emergency Solutions Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to fund the new system.

According to city of Missoula communications director Ginny Merriam, about two years ago there was a shift in thinking about approaches to homelessness at the federal level. The shift brought a move away from transitional housing to rapidly moving people into permanent housing. Transitional housing costs about five times more than rental assistance that keeps people in their homes, according to HUD.

The change required communities to work in different ways and also to provide more and different data to HUD. The cHris website is designed to collect those facts and figures.

“This is really a community response,” said HRC executive director Jim Morton.

Visit the cHris website at chrisdatacenter.com.

Reporter David Erickson can be reached at david.erickson@missoulian.com.

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