Fingerprint scans have been used for years by government agencies to help improve security, identify criminals and reduce welfare fraud. But in a new twist, New Jersey will soon use it to track and manage food, shelter, medicinal services and other basic necessities it provides to its homeless population.

The state is deploying a new biometrics data management system (BDMS) that includes a Web-based fingerprinting component. Once online, the system will enable state officials to more efficiently track who is receiving homeless services and the types of services rendered.

Like many other states hit hard by the recession, New Jersey has seen its homeless population rise and the demand for services increase substantially. The state entered 79,604 people* into the New Jersey Homeless Management Information System (NJHMIS) in 2012 -- up from 61,167 in 2011 and 56,754 in 2010, according to Abram Hilson, assistant director of NJHMIS.

The project, which is modeled after a program in Bergen County, will start with with five locations that will serve as beta sites for three months. If successful, New Jersey’s Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency (HMFA) plans to offer the technology to approximately 224 county and nonprofit organizations providing homeless services in the state.

Bergen County has been scanning the fingerprints of people coming into its food banks since 2010. The technology has improved both the accuracy of records and the speed in which people receive their food.

Initially, state officials wanted to wait until the benefits of Bergen's program were proven before adopting a similar system, Hilson said. But confident in its value, the state is moving forward, investing in an upgraded version that is different from Bergen's in several ways.

For example, the biometric system used in Bergen County requires someone to manually upload fingerprint data. The new state system, however, operates in real time. When a person comes in and has his or fingerprint scanned, staff members immediately see a record of all the services that individual has received -- food, clothing, shelter, etc. They record what services the homeless person needs and the data is automatically provided to the NJHMIS through a Web service.

Driving the high-tech identification system is the need for timely information about the state’s homeless population and the services they’re using. More accurate statistics are critical to the financial viability of the agency because funding from the federal government is based on the number of services delivered. In addition, the system will automate a number of tasks, freeing up personnel to handle other important work, according to Hilson.

“Not only will this [fingerprint scanning system] save time because you don’t have to stand in line to fill out paperwork or sign anything,” Hilson said. “[You] just simply come in, put your finger there and then go about your business and get services.”

In instances where fingerprints can’t be read, the system is also designed to perform facial recognition as a secondary means of identifying a client, according to Ray Bolling, CEO of Eyemetric Identity Systems, which developed the system. Though the system will store the fingerprint and facial recognition data, shelter visitors don’t have to worry because their information will not be shared with law enforcement databases.

Funding for the pilot program comes primarily from federal grants and will be paid out of the housing agency’s budget, according to Hilson. The state's housing agency runs NJHMIS, while a collaborative of nonprofits and county offices contribute participation fees that will help pay for the project.

“We are really hoping this technology will help agencies that usually experience a large volume of repeat clients,” said Erin Lue-Hing, NJHMIS data quality analyst. “It might not be something that would particularly work for everybody, but we are seeing a growing interest.”

*The NJHMIS numbers for 2010 through 2012 do not include Bergen County. This story was originally published on GOVERNING.com. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.