1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients: A Comparison of Faith-Based and Secular Non-Profit Programs


Laudan Y. Aron and Patrick T. Sharkey,
The Urban Institute

March 19, 2002


Background and Introduction

One of the most dramatic findings to emerge from the 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC) is the tremendous growth in the number and variety of homeless assistance programs during the late 1980s and early 1990s.  While much of this growth has been fueled by new investments of public funds, most faith-based non-profits operate with little or no government funding, yet they play a critical role in helping homeless people.

This study examines data from NSHAPC to determine more thoroughly the role that faith-based programs play in the larger context of homeless assistance.  The study has an explicit focus on comparing homeless assistance programs administered by faith-based versus secular non-profit service agencies.  It provides a basic but comprehensive picture of the numbers and characteristics of the two types of homeless assistance programs. 

The NSHAPC data are drawn from a comprehensive nationally representative survey of programs providing homeless assistance services and the clients of these programs.  All questions used for this analysis come from the survey of program administrators.

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Key Findings

Numbers and Types of Homeless Assistance Programs

  • NSHAPC documented just under 40,000 homeless assistance programs operating on an average day in February 1996. 
  • Faith-based non-profits run about a third of all programs, including the majority of all food programs and one-quarter of all shelters and drop-in centers.  Secular non-profits run almost half of all homeless assistance programs administering the majority of housing programs and almost 40 percent of all health programs.
  • Faith-based programs administer a greater proportion of programs in urban areas than they do in rural areas, and also run a larger share of programs in the south than they do in other regions of the country.

Clients of Homeless Assistance Programs

  • In general, faith-based providers serve a more diverse group of clients than do secular non-profits.  The proportion of programs serving each client group  single men, single women, females with children, other households with children, and youth  is higher among faith-based programs than it is among secular non-profits.
  • The vast majority of food programs serve single men.  Almost 95 percent of faith-based food programs serve this group, while 87 percent of secular programs do.  Housing programs are the least likely to serve single men.
  • The client group least likely to be served by either type of sponsoring agency is unaccompanied youth.  Thirty-six percent of faith-based programs serve this group, compared to 31 percent of secular programs.

Focus of Homeless Assistance Programs

  • Over all programs, faith-based providers are much less likely to have a special focus than are secular providers.  Only 12 percent of faith-based food programs have a special focus, compared to 32 percent of secular programs. 
  • Housing and health programs are more likely than food programs to specialize, no matter what type of agency sponsors them.
  • A substantial proportion of secular and government programs run shelters specifically for victims of domestic violence.  Faith-based shelters are much less likely to have a special focus, and only a small share focus on domestic violence.

Client Needs

  • With few exceptions such as food and clothing, secular non-profits tend to report higher levels of client need than do faith-based non-profits.  Several factors may  account for this, including differences in the types of programs run by faith-based versus secular non-profits, as well as the types and diversity of their clients.
  • Faith-based agencies are more likely than secular agencies to provide basic services such as food and clothing, and are less likely to provide all other, more specific types of services.

Referrals to and from Programs

  • The largest source of clients for faith-based programs is self-referral, but for secular programs the most common source is through another program.
  • Clients of housing programs are more likely to come from another program, while clients of food programs are more likely to self-refer.
  • Individuals leaving faith-based emergency shelter programs are more likely than those in secular programs to go into transitional housing and to the streets or other outside locations, and they are less likely to go to a family or friends house.  Family clients are more likely to go to another emergency or transitional shelter or an outside location, and they are less likely to go to private or government housing or to the home of a friend or family member.
  • In general, clients of faith-based and secular transitional housing programs are very similar in terms of where clients go after leaving the program.

Government Funding of Homeless Assistance Programs

  • The majority (62 percent) of faith-based programs receive no government funding at all and the vast majority (90 percent) receive less that one-half of their funding from government sources.  Among secular non-profits, less than one-quarter receive no government funds and only 40 percent receive less than one-half of their funds from government agencies.
  • Twenty-two percent of secular non-profits rely on government funds exclusively, compared to less than 3 percent of faith-based programs.

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Faith-based and other community-based non-profit organizations have a long history of helping people in need.  The NSHAPC data analyzed here provide yet more evidence of the continuing importance of faith-based organizations in serving people who are homeless or on the brink of homelessness.

Many observers believe that the country has done an adequate job of building up an emergency response system for homeless people and must now go beyond this by focusing on prevention and longer-lasting housing and support services.  Adequate and affordable housing, a living wage, and critical support services such as childcare and substance abuse treatment, are key to reducing homelessness.  But the more basic support services provided by faith-based agencies are likely to remain a key ingredient in helping prevent poor people from becoming homeless and ensuring that those who do become homeless do so only once and for a short period of time.  The Compassion Capital Fund, a new program created in the Presidents budget for 2002, will match private giving with federal dollars to provide grants to charitable organizations to emulate model social service programs and to encourage research on the best practices of social service organizations

Future research on homeless assistance programs should examine whether the clients of faith-based, secular non-profit, and government-run agencies differ in fundamental ways and whether the relationships between agencies and their clients vary by type of program or administering agency.  More work is also needed on how different types of agencies choose their focus (in response to current funding streams, the agencys basic mission, assessments of needs within the community, etc.), and on the effectiveness of social service programs run by faith-based organizations.  Finally, it would also be useful to know if clients are even aware of the faith-based versus secular status of non-profit agencies, and if so, whether (and why) they prefer one over the other.