The 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients: A Comparison of Faith-Based and Secular Non-Profit Programs. All Client Needs


When asked about each of the 59 different service needs, administrators were asked if “all,” “most,” “some,” or “none” of their clients had this need.  Table 7 lists all 59 service needs and reports what share of programs run by faith-based non-profits, secular non-profits, and government organizations have an administrator who thinks that “most” or “all” of their homeless clients need the given service.

Secular non-profits tend to report higher levels of client need than do faith-based non-profits.

In general, administrators of secular non-profits tend to report higher levels of client need than do faith-based non-profits.  Faith-based service providers report greater shares of clients needing food and clothing, but the observed difference in the shares of clients needing food is not statistically significant.  For many services, greater shares of clients of secular non-profit agencies are thought to need the service, but there are many services — especially in the areas of education, employment and training, and substance abuse services — where the levels of client need are surprisingly similar among the two types of agencies.

In assessing differences in client needs it is important once again to remember that some of these differences are likely to stem from the types of programs the two groups of agencies tend to sponsor.  Most faith-based homeless assistance programs are food programs (see Table 1), and it is natural that administrators of these programs would be more aware of basic needs such as food and clothing.  Even among food programs alone, however, a smaller percentage of faith-based non-profits report high levels of need than do secular non-profits (the only statistically significant exception to this is for clothing).

While it is difficult to know exactly why administrators of secular non-profits report that their clients have greater levels of need for many services, there are several possible explanations.  First, the clients of the two types of agencies may simply differ.  Prior analyses showed that faith-based programs, especially faith-based food programs, are more likely than secular programs to serve single men.  While it is unlikely that single men have fewer needs than other types of clients, the diversity of the client population of faith-based food programs serve may result in a more diffuse set of needs among all clients.  That is, if a program serves many types of clients — single mothers with children, single men, youth, etc. — it may be that there are few individual services that are needed by “all” or even “most” of these clients.  Thus, the heterogeneity of clients of faith-based programs may result in fewer needs that are common to all or most clients.

Other differences in the client groups may also explain the observed differences in client needs.  Compared to faith-based agencies, secular non-profits may have more clients who are currently homeless.  Although NSHAPC specifically asks about service needs for all currently homeless clients, comparisons of NSHAPC program and client data have shown that administrators overestimate the share of clients who are homeless.  This is especially true of food programs — administrators of these programs estimated that about 35 percent of their clients are currently homeless while the NSHAPC client data indicate that only 27 percent of food program clients are currently homeless.(20)  It is easy to see how program administrators could misidentify clients of food programs as being homeless, when in fact they may be formerly homeless clients or else they may simply be very poor and precariously housed.  In soup kitchens and other programs providing basic services other than housing, many clients are not screened.  This is especially true of food programs, which are known to serve many people who may not be literally homeless at the time of service.  Thus, compared to secular non-profits, faith-based programs may have fewer clients who are literally homeless and may therefore, have fewer immediate service needs.

Finally, the clients of faith-based non-profits may have fewer needs because these programs are less likely than other programs to have a special focus.  Administrators of faith-based assistance programs may also be less aware of the full range of specific client needs compared to secular non-profits.  Instead, faith-based programs may tend to concentrate on the basic needs of clients and provide services that address these needs.

Although the same general patterns hold when service needs are examined by urban-rural status and region of the country, there are a few interesting differences.  First, as might be expected, needs are generally perceived to be greater among clients of central city programs.  Second, faith-based programs in the northeast and in the west tend to report higher levels of need for many types of services relative to secular non-profits in these regions and relative to faith-based programs nationally.

20.  See Table 15.5, Estimates of Proportion Homeless Based on Program and Client Data on p. 15-21 of the NSHAPC Technical Report (Burt et al. 1999).