Homelessness: Overview of Current Issues and GAO Studies

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-03-23.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                          United States General Accounting Office

GAO                       Testimony
                          Before the Committee on Government Reform, House of

For Release on Delivery
Expected at
12:00 a.m. EST
March 23, 1999

                          Overview of Current Issues
                          and GAO Studies
                          Statement of Stanley J. Czerwinski, Associate Director,
                          Housing and Community Development Issues,
                          Resources, Community, and Economic
                          Development Division

        Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

        We are here today to provide you with information on GAO’s recently
        issued report1 and ongoing and planned body of work on homelessness. As
        you are aware, homelessness has persisted in America for decades. While
        no one knows exactly how many people in the United States are homeless,
        according to the most widely accepted estimate, up to 600,000 people may
        be homeless on any given night. Moreover, the causes of homelessness
        have become more complex, and its effects are now more widespread than
        in the past. The homeless population no longer consists primarily of
        transient adult males but also includes women, families with children, the
        mentally ill, the unemployed, and those who are dependent on drugs or
        alcohol. Addressing the needs of homeless people is often a formidable
        challenge because many of them face a combination of personal, social,
        and economic problems that prevent them from maintaining permanent

        Recognizing that states, localities, and private organizations had been
        unable to respond to the crisis of homelessness in America, the Congress
        enacted the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act in 1987. The
        McKinney Act was the first comprehensive law designed to address the
        diverse needs of the homeless and was intended to provide both shelter
        and supportive services.2 Over time, some McKinney Act programs have
        been consolidated or eliminated and some new programs have been added.

        Recently, several Members of the Congress, including you, Mr. Chairman
        and Representative Kucinich of this Committee, have become increasingly
        concerned about the apparent lack of impact that federal programs have
        had on homelessness. This concern has arisen because federal agencies
        seem to have made little progress in addressing the root causes of
        homelessness, and federal programs seldom focus on preventing
        homelessness. Some congressional leaders are further concerned because,
        in trying to solve the problems of homeless people, the federal government
        has created a separate system of programs designed specifically to serve
        the homeless that often mirror existing federal and state social service
        programs that serve other populations (generally called mainstream social

        1Homelessness:    Coordination and Evaluation of Programs Are Essential (RCED-99-49, Feb. 26, 1999).

          Supportive services include those that provide day care, education, employment and training, legal assistance,
        health care, mental health care, and substance abuse treatment.

Leter   Page 1                                                                                  GAO/T-RCED-99-125
        service programs)—raising questions about efficiency in the use of limited
        federal resources. To address some of these issues, GAO initiated a body of
        work in 1998 on homelessness that we would like to describe for you today.
        First, we will discuss the results of a recently completed review, and then
        we will briefly describe four additional pertinent assignments that we have
        started or planned.

        Last month, we completed a study identifying key federal programs that
        could potentially serve the homeless. Entitled Homelessness:
        Coordination and Evaluation of Programs Are Essential, this study
        identifies 50 programs, administered by eight federal agencies, that either
        are specifically targeted to the homeless or are nontargeted and therefore
        available to low-income people in general, including those who are
        homeless. We found that both the targeted and “nontargeted” programs
        provide an array of services, such as housing, health care, job training, and
        transportation. In some cases, programs operated by more than one
        agency offer the same type of service. For example, we found that 23
        programs operated by four federal agencies offer housing services, and 26
        programs operated by six agencies offer food and nutrition services. We
        also determined that over $1.2 billion was obligated in fiscal year 1997 for
        programs that specifically served the homeless and about $215 billion was
        obligated for programs that served low-income populations, including the
        homeless. Although information is not available on how much of the
        funding for nontargeted programs is used to assist homeless people, we
        estimate that a significant portion of the funding is not likely to benefit

        Given the multiple agencies and the large number of programs that can
        potentially serve the homeless, we believe that coordination among federal
        agencies and evaluations of programs’ effectiveness are essential to ensure
        that these programs achieve their desired outcomes in a cost-effective
        manner. Through our review, we found that federal efforts to assist the
        homeless are coordinated in several ways, and many agencies have
        established performance measures as required by the Government
        Performance and Results Act of 1993. For example, coordination can take
        place through the Interagency Council on the Homeless, which brings
        representatives of federal agencies addressing homelessness together, and
        through compliance with the requirements of the Results Act. The Results
        Act requires federal agencies to identify crosscutting responsibilities,
        specify in their strategic plans how they will work together to avoid
        unnecessary duplication of effort, and develop appropriate measures for
        evaluating their programs’ results.

Leter   Page 2                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-125
        We found that most agencies that administer targeted programs for the
        homeless have identified crosscutting responsibilities related to
        homelessness, but few have attempted the more challenging task of
        describing how they expect to coordinate their efforts with those of other
        agencies or develop common outcome measures. In addition, we found
        that while most federal agencies have established process or output
        measures for the services they provide to the homeless through their
        targeted programs, they have not consistently developed results-oriented
        and outcome measures for homelessness in their plans. While some
        agencies have developed outcome measures for their targeted programs,
        other agencies either plan to develop outcome measures in the future or
        told us that developing such measures would be too difficult.
        Consequently, we concluded that federal agencies have not yet taken full
        advantage of the Results Act and that their efforts could be strengthened
        through increased coordination and the development of common outcome
        measures for federal programs that serve the homeless.

        To address the other issues raised by congressional leaders, we have
        started or planned work in the following areas:

        • State and Local Efforts to Integrate and Evaluate Programs for the
          Homeless. To provide the wide range of services that homeless people
          often need, local communities sometimes have to find ways to better
          integrate their services for the homeless with mainstream social service
          systems. In addition, some states are increasing their use of outcome
          measures to ensure that their programs do not only focus on providing
          services, but also on the goal of moving people out of homelessness.
          Our ongoing study will describe how some states and localities have
          tried to (1) link their homeless programs to mainstream social service
          systems to better serve the homeless and (2) use program outcome
          evaluations to better manage their programs. For this study, we
          identified and visited Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, and Washington.
          According to national experts on homelessness, these states are
          generally recognized as having made good progress in integrating or
          evaluating their programs for the homeless. We believe that the
          examples included in our study will be useful to other communities
          seeking to better integrate and evaluate their own programs, as well as
          provide information that can be used by federal agencies attempting
          similar improvements at the national level.

        • Use of Grants Under the Supportive Housing Program to Provide
          Services to the Homeless. The Congress established the Supportive

Leter   Page 3                                                   GAO/T-RCED-99-125
           Housing Program as one of the nonemergency housing programs under
           the McKinney Act.3 This program recognizes that many homeless people
           will need supportive services, such as mental health treatment,
           substance abuse treatment, and employment assistance, along with
           housing to help them make the transition from homelessness and live as
           independently as possible. In fiscal year 1997, the Department of
           Housing and Urban Development obligated $620 million for this
           program. These funds were then awarded through a competitive grant
           process to providers of services for the homeless, nationwide; about 60
           percent of the funds were used to provide supportive services. Our
           ongoing review of the Supportive Housing Program will provide
           information on the (1) types of housing and supportive services that
           grant applicants provide for the homeless, (2) other sources of federal
           and nonfederal funding that grant applicants rely on to fund supportive
           service programs for the homeless, and (3) the importance of the
           Supportive Housing Program’s funds to grant applicants’ programs. To
           provide this information, we will analyze data obtained through a
           nationwide survey of about 1,200 service providers who applied for
           Supportive Housing Program grants.

        • Programs That Serve Homeless Veterans. According to the Department
          of Veterans Affairs (VA), veterans make up about one-third of the adult
          homeless population. To address the needs of homeless veterans, over
          the past decade VA has established a number of targeted programs, and
          in fiscal year 1997 it spent approximately $84 million on these programs.
          Our ongoing review of VA’s programs for the homeless is designed to (1)
          describe the various programs that serve homeless veterans, (2)
          determine what VA knows about the effectiveness of its programs for
          the homeless, and (3) identify some promising approaches that serve the
          needs of different groups of homeless veterans.

        • Barriers to Accessing Services. We also plan to study the barriers faced
          by homeless people when they try to gain access to and use services
          provided by mainstream social service systems. As part of this review,
          we will determine how existing mainstream social service systems can
          be changed to facilitate homeless people’s access to services. Making
          mainstream programs and services more accessible to homeless people
          would expand the range of programs and services available to them.

          The Supportive Housing Program was originally established as a demonstration program; the
        Congress made the program permanent in 1992.

Leter   Page 4                                                                       GAO/T-RCED-99-125
                   In conclusion, Mr. Chairman, homelessness has been and continues to
                   remain a formidable challenge facing our nation. Given the federal
                   government’s high level of investment and involvement in developing
                   solutions to this problem, we believe that addressing homelessness will
                   continue to be a priority for the Congress, federal agencies, states and
                   localities, private organizations that serve the homeless, and the public.
                   Consequently, work on homelessness will continue to be important for
                   GAO, and we look forward to providing the Congress and the public with
                   the information they need to address this issue in the future.

                   Mr. Chairman, this completes our prepared statement. We would be happy
                   to respond to any questions that you or Members of the Committee may

(385796)   Leter   Page 5                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-125
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