Skip to content Skip to main navigation Report an accessibility issue

Alum Savanna Sims Manages Data at an Org to Help People Who are Experiencing Homelessness

Every day, data is gathered in 12 East Tennessee counties about one of its most vulnerable populations: people experiencing homelessness. All of this data is entered into the Homeless Management Information System, which at the Tennessee Valley Coalition for the Homeless (TVCH), is handled by MSIS alum Savanna Sims (’20).

Sims started working at TVCH as a data specialist while she was finishing up the graduate program at SIS, and she’s since moved into the role of director of data management. The database she manages, the Homeless Information Management System (HIMS), houses data about people they work with throughout a 12 county region that includes Anderson, Blount, Campbell, Claiborne, Cocke, Grainger, Hamblen, Jefferson, Loudon, Monroe, Sevier, and Union counties

“HIMS is a local, client-level database that collects information about people being served by ourselves or our partners, such as  what kind of services people are receiving as well as demographic information,” she said.

TVCH provides an array of services and resources and has about 40 other organizations that are service providers throughout the region that are part of what is called a Continuum of Care (CoC). Sims is responsible for training people from the CoC on how to use the database and she also assists those users with troubleshooting any issues with the database.

She also uses the database to pull reports so TVCH can give information about their work to agencies that provide funding and oversight, such as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development  and the Tennessee Housing and Development Agency. It’s also used to acquire additional funding through grants.

Another purpose of the data is to provide a better picture of what homelessness looks like in a community; for example, mayors may ask Sims for such information for their cities or counties, or school districts want to have a better idea about youth in their area experiencing homelessness.

Sims is passionate about providing resources for people who are experiencing homelessness, and this was the major point that drew her to apply at TVCH for her initial job. The reason she went into the MSIS program is to fulfill a lifelong dream of being a librarian, so this turn in her career trajectory was somewhat unexpected.

“It speaks to how versatile this degree is. I did take a records and data management course, so I did have a foundation for this. But the class that geared me up for this was a special topics course [INSC 590: Special Topics: The Role of Libraries in Addressing Homelessness and Poverty],” Sims said.

That course, offered by lecturer Julie Winkelstein made a significant impact on Sims and also pushed her to look for jobs that support people experiencing homelessness. It also gave her a leg up in the interview process at TVCH.

“I had such a great foundation going into this position and I was able to speak very intelligently about housing and urban development and all these different legislative things regarding people experiencing homelessness. Her class was just amazing,” Sims said.

Sims appreciates the care with which TVCH and its service partners treat those they are assisting, and that extends to the data. They have a hefty data security policy that requires all users to have a background check that is specific to issues such as felonies related to fraud. Because the HIMS database includes sensitive personally identifiable information, they want to take care that information doesn’t get into the wrong hands.

“Even the URL itself is a secret, it’s pretty locked down, which is a good thing of course. These are very vulnerable community members we’re serving and it would be awful for us to be careless with their data, so we have to be good stewards of their data and their trust in us,” she said.

Sims said she is grateful to the person who was the previous director of data management, because they took her under their wing and mentored her. Even though Sims didn’t take database courses in her MSIS program, she had a strong foundational knowledge of information systems and was able to learn a lot from her mentor.

“I’m definitely grateful for how diverse the information sciences program is…you can do so many things with the degree and the classes you can take, even the name is versatile,” she said.

Even the work she did at libraries while she was a student informed certain skills in her current job. Because she often wears many hats, Sims finds herself occasionally working the TVCH hotline and speaking with someone who needs a referral or resources. When she was working at a library, she would help people experiencing homelessness regularly; in fact, that’s what initially piqued her interest in Winkelstein’s class.

And while being a librarian someday still isn’t off the table, Sims loves her current job and what her organization does.

“It’s important, even when you’re in the data side of working with vulnerable populations, to have a passion for social justice and equity and to have belief in the good of people,” she said.