Data Points: Homelessness Prevention – To Do or Not To Do?

written by Sam Batko
July 30, 2013

Last week, at the Alliance’s National Conference on Ending Homelessness, I heard a lot of very valid questions about homelessness prevention. For instance, “If we could prevent the disruption in families and individuals’ lives by preventing homelessness before it occurred, why wouldn’t that be the highest priority?” One presentation in particular on the efficacy of Homebase in New York City elicited a lot of these kinds of questions from the audience. So, today I am going to take a look at the findings from a recent report on that program.

A recent random assignment evaluation conducted by Abt Associates found that:

  • Families in the treatment group were  6.5 percent less likely to spend at least one night in shelter and 8.9 percent less likely to apply for shelter than the control group in the 27 months following intake into the program; and
  • Homebase prevention services more than offset the costs of operating the prevention program through shelter cost savings—saving the city approximately $140 per family served.

New York City’s successful effort to reduce the incidence of homelessness among families should be applauded. It shows that we can use data to improve the targeting of prevention resources.

However, we already know that the provision of homelessness prevention assistance does not equal an actual incidence of homelessness prevented. In fact, in many communities, homeless prevention assistance often goes to families who are the least likely to experience homelessness and who do not resemble the population seen in shelters. Currently, the best efforts in the country – like New York City’s  – are still serving some families who probably would not have become homeless.

Ultimately, if we are to make the most effective use of scarce homelessness assistance resources, the most direct and efficient way to end family homelessness is to help families who are homeless get back into housing. Every dollar spent on rapid re-housing is a dollar spent to end homelessness for a homeless family.