Federal housing employee Ann Oliva has improved our nation’s response to homelessness by instituting innovative management systems that have reduced the time it takes to award grants, permitted better analysis of program effectiveness and promoted the open exchange of community-based information.
An electronic grants information system established by Oliva replaced an outdated, time-consuming, paper-based application process and has allowed the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to review and distribute some $1.6 billion in federal homeless grants in 61 instead of 213 days.
This system, known as e-snaps, has given HUD the ability to streamline its processes, track homeless grants through their lifecycle, and better evaluate the performance and effectiveness of these government-funded homeless assistance programs. Another important innovation implemented under Oliva’s leadership is an online system that allows communities and the federal government to target services, track results and allocate resources to end homelessness.
“We’ve reduced chronic homelessness in the last five years, and a big part of that is data for problem-solving,” said HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan. “We’ve applied rigorous data, and Ann has been behind a huge share of those advances.”
“Her work gave me confidence to make an incredibly ambitious commitment to end homelessness and childhood homelessness,” said Donovan.
HUD estimates that on a single night in January 2009, there were an estimated 643,067 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people nationwide. In addition, nearly 1.56 million people used an emergency shelter or a transitional housing program during the 12-month period between Oct.1, 2008 through Sept.30, 2009.
The e-snaps management system not only reduced processing times for some 7,000 homeless grants, it decreased annual data entry costs from more than $1 million to approximately $100,000 and reduced data verification hours by 75 percent.
“There were stacks and stacks and stacks of paper that had to be copied, data entered, verified and reviewed for each grant competition,” said Oliva. “It was very clear to me that we had to jump on the opportunity to change it.”
By cutting back on the time and effort needed for administrative tasks, Oliva said, local providers and HUD officials can actually focus on what matters most—“substantive items like serving people who are homeless.”
The system has been so successful that Congress awarded additional funds for e-snaps to be a “lifecycle” management system that grantee organizations can use not only to apply for funding, but to report on persons served, program outcomes and financial performance.
Serving as the director of HUD’s Office of Special Needs Assistance Programs, Oliva also is responsible for the new Homelessness Data Exchange, a separate online portal for data collection and reporting that helps local, state, and federal policymakers better understand the scope of homelessness, allocate resources and identify the strategies that work best. Before this 2010 innovation, more than 3,800 cities and counties used different methods to manually collect and report information on the homeless population.
This has provided policymakers with critical information for budgeting and research, has informed a new strategic plan that calls for more outcome-focused homeless polices, and helped states better manage grantees.
“For 20 years, the homeless community was gauged on a feel-good approach, but we are moving toward accountability. This allows data to drive the decisions, not the heartstrings,” said Martha Kegel, executive director of UNITY of Greater New Orleans.
Oliva’s colleagues not only praise her technical skills, but her sense of mission and commitment to help those who are less fortunate. Before coming to government, Oliva worked at the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness where she was involved in providing new service options to meet the underlying needs of those without shelter.
“I draw on that experience all of the time because I can understand how a policy decision made at my level can impact programs and systems at the local level,” said Oliva.
Mercedes Márquez, HUD’s assistant secretary for community planning and development, said Oliva’s “unique combination of real-world, on-the-street experience in helping individual homeless people, combined with her expertise in using data in a strategic way both locally and nationally, has enabled her to make profound contributions to reducing and ending homelessness.”
Oliva was originally influenced by her parents, immigrants who moved to the United States from Cuba with no resources. She said they were “strong believers in giving back to the community.”
“She walks the walk,” said HUD Secretary Donovan. “It’s not abstract with her; it’s deeply personal. She lives it in a way that is an example for her team.”