Homeless services system

Homeless services system

When the federal government first began funding homeless assistance in the 1980s, it largely supported individual nonprofits, with little regard to the overall community impact or coordination.  Today, partner agencies and independent programs from related sectors such as employment, healthcare, or criminal justice often work together within a jurisdiction to reduce and end homelessness as part of a homeless services system.

Individual programs may be operated by nonprofit organizations, public agencies, or more rarely by for-profit entities, and may be focused on addressing homelessness overall and/or for particular target populations such as families, youth, veterans, or people with chronic patterns of homelessness. To the extent they work together, these organizations and agencies constitute a system.

The federal government, largely through HUD’s homeless funding, has incentivized the creation of such systems at the local jurisdiction, regional, or state level. They are planned and coordinated by bodies called Continuums of Care (CoC).[1]  While HUD outlines certain core responsibilities for such systems, their formality and comprehensiveness varies by jurisdiction.  Their effectiveness and outcomes also vary.

The original Continuum of Care concept of the early 1990s required communities to coordinate these nonprofits — but gaps remained.  More recently, HUD has asked communities to take a more comprehensive approach.  All projects or agencies within a community (both those funded by HUD, and those that do not receive HUD funding) are asked not just to coordinate, but to come together as a system:  coordinating and using the same methods for assessing need, prioritizing services, testing effectiveness, collecting data, and measuring outcomes.  This approach enables communities to identify gaps in services as well as effective interventions, and to shift resources among programs as appropriate.

A key element supporting such systems is data.  All homeless programs in the CoC are required by HUD to collect administrative data through their local Homeless Management Information System (HMIS).  These data can be used by the community to assess the size of the problem and the effectiveness of approaches, although ability to use data effectively varies. In addition to measuring the performance of the homeless services system as a whole, HMIS data can also be used to evaluate outcomes at the individual program level. Reports generated from these data are also shared with HUD.

While HUD exercises a strong influence on its grantees, people who access the homeless services system also need and may use mainstream assistance and services for which they are eligible, such as TANF cash assistance and publicly funded health insurance programs.[2] Therefore, the most effective homelessness services systems include meaningful participation of mainstream service providers such as TANF and Medicaid agencies.[3]

Based on their extensive experience working with homeless services systems, Samantha Batko of the Urban Institute and Brooke Spellman of Abt Associates are working on an up-to-date synthesis of the evidence on homeless services systems that will be available on this website soon.

[1] Spellman, Brooke, Jill Khadduri, Brian Sokol, and Josh Leopold. Costs Associated With First-Time Homelessness for Families and Individuals. March 2010. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

[2] Burt, Martha R., Jill Khadduri, and Daniel Gubits. Are Homeless Families Connected to the Social Safety Net? April 2016. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

[3] Burt, Martha R., et al. Evaluations of Continuums of Care for Homeless People: Final Report. May 2002. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.