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Engaging in Work to Reduce Homelessness

Interested in working with KnoxHMIS to reduce homelessness?

Faculty should contact David Patterson at

Students should contact Lisa Higginbotham at

Students: Computer Science students with App design interests and skills can contribute design and training to help those experiencing homelessness find resources they need (examples: WeShelterProject REACH.) Communications students can assist with info graphics and help design special reports on homeless issued from aggregate KnoxHMIS data. Social Work and Sociology graduate students can help prepar the Knoxville-Knox County Homeless Coalition Biennial Study on Homeless and other community initiatives.

Faculty and advanced students: Faculty, graduate, doctoral and other advanced students can assist with data visualization/analysis to develop a representative flow of individuals across time, service providers, services delivered, and outcomes in a single information rich data representation.

Other opportunities

Many of KnoxHMIS’s community organizational partners recruit through Volunteer Knoxville.

UT’s Center for Leadership and Service also cultivates strong, ongoing relationships between students and many community organizations, including a number that address issues of homelessness. Find out more here.

By Nichole Stevens

The experience of homelessness cannot be reduced to sleeping in a cardboard box.  “We make a lot of assumptions about people who are homeless. They have dignity,”  said Lisa Higginbotham, research associate/data analyst for KnoxHMIS.

The Knoxville Homeless Management Information System, a community outreach and research endeavor of the UT College of Social Work, is used by homeless service agencies to track data on the community’s homeless population. The system houses data on 36,000 individuals over an 11-year history.

“We’re the empirical window into homelessness in Knoxville and Knox County,” said David Patterson, endowed professor of Mental Health Research and Practice in College of Social Work. “We focus on outcomes that let us see what’s making a difference and what’s not making a difference.”

Some people, mostly younger adults, have sensationalized the idea of being homeless for a day, in order to gain a deeper understanding of hardship. Higginbotham said pretending to be homeless doesn’t produce something tangible and beneficial to homelessness reduction. She suggests that those wanting to help in their community should seek out an established agency, like Volunteer Knoxville.

“Pretending to be homeless doesn’t meet the needs of the clients in our community,” said Higginbotham. “Our partners need volunteers to contact them and say ‘how can I assist you in meeting a need?’ What helps our clients is if you help raise money to a fund for utility assistance, or other supportive services, but you should contact agencies to find that out.”

KnoxHMIS has about 145 users from 19 different agencies trained to use the system to understand what’s been done previously for clients and what needs to be done to make better plans for future services.

A social worker or other member with a partner agency and can get into the system to work with homeless individuals to determine how to continue the relationship. The system also acts as a tool for agencies to collaborate and coordinate services.

“Most partners are interested in accessing KnoxHMIS to further collaborative initiatives,” Higginbotham said. “It’s not just a database. It’s a partnership with the community and without that, you’re not going to get collaborative case management and motivate case managers to input real time information.”

The data entered into the information system are utilized to evaluate how the community is doing in areas like permanent housing placement and employment outcomes.

Before KnoxHMIS, agencies commonly used paper-based records, occasionally reporting figures on meals served and beds available. However, it only gave social workers and community members a glimpse into what was being done versus what needed to be done. Patterson and others who worked to put KnoxHMIS in place saw a need for a more comprehensive picture, which could only be found in a large data set that provides different angles to look at the issue from.

“It helps them have a better mechanism to understand homeless individuals and families and provide outreach,” Patterson said of data collected. “As a community, we are addressing poverty, but unfortunately we are doing little to alter the underlying dynamics creating homelessness.”

David Patterson

David Patterson

Many people have declared a ‘10-year plan to end homelessness’ in the past. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

“We’re simply not going to end homelessness until we can address laws regarding commitment to treatment and finding community resources and funding,” said Patterson.

Patterson lists social change initiatives like substance abuse treatment on demand, a broader range of job opportunities and training, mental health services, low-cost affordable housing, address domestic violence and women’s safety, and many other major social challenges that can lead to homelessness.

Although completely ending homelessness is unlikely, reducing it and making periods of homelessness brief is something agencies can do with the support and help from the community.

“The empirical information collected in KnoxHIMS is a valuable tool to inform our community efforts to address homelessness and to measure our success in doing so,” Patterson said.


The Knoxville Homeless Management Information System was nominated as a Partnership that Makes a Difference. Click here to read more.