Database Debacle

A system that compiles information on the homeless gets caught in red tape and conflict

Who knew so much trouble could result from something as mundane as choosing database software?

The database, known as the Tucson Homeless Management Information System (HMIS), is jointly used by local organizations that serve the homeless to store sensitive case information on their clients.

Tucson's Information and Referral Services holds the federal grant contract that funds HMIS, while members of the Tucson Planning Council for the Homeless (TPCH), an umbrella organization of agencies and individuals serving the homeless community, primarily use it. The nonprofit Information and Referral Services was acting as a "fiscal agent" for TPCH when the HMIS was launched three years ago--which means they accepted responsibility for grants on behalf of the other organizations.

In other words, I&R has a chokehold on HMIS funding.

Things initially went sour after TPCH, which was dissatisfied with the current database software provided by Data Systems International (DSI), decided to find someone else.

Sources knowledgeable about the situation claimed people using the software had problems retrieving information, and also portrayed DSI as a business run by thin-skinned egoists. Beth Carey, the incoming TPCH chairwoman, stated in a subsequent e-mail that Arizona Technology Consulting, the local company providing tech support on the software, was unable to consistently produce requested reports.

DSI's supposed shortcomings became even more apparent when I&R informed them that they would be using someone else's software, after I&R and TPCH had reviewed possible alternatives. I&R wanted to know if they would be able to port the current data over to the new provider.

According to I&R Executive Director Leslie Ann Williams, DSI was chilly to that idea. In fact, immediately after she got off the phone with DSI on the morning of June 15, the company froze all access to the database, citing the fact that I&R owed them about $2,500.

"They're basically holding our data hostage," Williams said later that afternoon. I&R had to fire off an e-mail warning agencies that any information they saved after June 13--when the last backup copy of the database was made--could have been lost.

Williams said I&R was behind on payments because bureaucracy had delayed disbursement of the HMIS grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development by several months. But she added that DSI is aware such delays are par for the course, leading her to believe the company's move was attributable to spite.

On the other hand, Bill Magnotto, the outgoing TPCH chairman, didn't think bureaucracy was to blame, noting that other agencies had already received similar federal grant money.

All this business was simply a prelude to another conflict. The database is now back up and humming along--at least until June 30, after which a new software vendor takes charge.

The relationship between I&R and TPCH, however, isn't proceeding so smoothly.

On June 20, Williams sent out a letter announcing that I&R had chosen Arizona Technology Consulting to provide the new database software, claiming they had "the best responsive bid at the lowest cost." The problem, however, was that TPCH, with I&R's previous collaboration, had approved software provided by Domus Systems in California--not ATC.

Magnotto was tactful about the row with I&R, calling the situation "touchy."

"Essentially, the (TPCH) advisory committee came up with recommendations" for a new software vendor, he said. "We presented them to the full council for a vote at the last general council meeting. We voted for a company, and I&R, although they participated in the process, chose a different company."

Despite Magnotto's diplomatic way of putting things, TPCH's frustration shone through in a series of e-mails written by Carey, the incoming TPCH chairwoman. On June 21--the day after the HMIS award announcement--Carey fired off a scathing missive to Williams.

"You have made this decision and announcement against the expressed recommendations of the HMIS Advisory Board and in opposition of the vote that was taken by the Tucson Planning Council for the Homeless at their general meeting held on June 14, 2007," Carey wrote. "I am protesting this decision and consider your actions to be irresponsible in the management of the HMIS contract and detrimental to the goodwill of the TPCH community and the need for a functioning HMIS system."

Williams, who was again contacted by the Weekly after her HMIS award letter was sent out, refused to comment.

Carey's e-mails included a letter to officials with the city of Tucson and Pima County, in which she said Williams "has furthered the conflict with TPCH and acted irresponsibly on our behalf." The letter characterized ATC's software product as unproven.

It's not clear if TPCH has any recourse in the matter. A meeting between I&R and TPCH, mediated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is scheduled for sometime in the near future, both Williams and Magnotto said.

With negotiations that are likely to be contentious looming in the future, Carey--who's vacationing through July 9--acknowledged her term as chairwoman has gotten off to a rocky start.

"I just have to say this is NOT how I envisioned the beginning of my tenure as chair of TPCH," she wrote to colleagues. "We have much too much work to do with our community to be derailed by this."