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


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.  Faith-based non-profits run the majority of homeless assistance food programs in this country, including over 60 percent of soup kitchens and over one-half of all food pantries.  But their contributions are not limited to food assistance.  Faith-based providers oversee about one-quarter of all emergency and transitional shelters and voucher distribution programs and more than one-quarter of all drop-in centers across the country.  Secular non-profits are also a critical component of the nation’s homeless service delivery system.  In addition to running the majority of shelters and permanent housing programs, they administer over one-third of all food programs, including close to 40 percent of all soup kitchens and one-half of all mobile food programs.  These providers also oversee almost 40 percent of all health programs, including almost one-half of all alcohol and drug programs and HIV/AIDS programs.  Finally, around 60 percent of outreach and drop-in center programs are run by secular non-profits.

Faith-based programs play a much larger role in urban areas (both central city and suburban) than they do in rural areas.  This is true for all types of programs taken together as well as for specific types of programs.  Government agencies, by contrast, play a critical role in delivering health services in rural areas and a much smaller role in central cities and suburban areas.  With the exceptions of food programs (which are dominated by faith-based providers in urban areas) and health programs (which are dominated by government agencies in rural areas), secular non-profits tend to be much more consistent in terms of the types of programs they administer in urban versus rural areas.  Looking at these data by region reveals that compared to the west or northeast, faith-based organizations appear to be responsible for a greater share of programs in the south (largely due to their increased involvement in housing and “other” types of homeless assistance programs).

In general, compared to programs run by secular non-profits, faith-based service providers of all types serve a wider variety of clients (they are especially more likely to serve single men) and are less likely to have some type of special focus (on a group of clients such as families or youth, or on a group with special needs such as victims of domestic violence or people with HIV/AIDS).  They also report lower levels of specific types of needs among their clients.  This last finding may in fact be the result of the first two.  If the clients of faith-based agencies are more diverse, then their needs are also likely to be more diverse (and there will be lower levels of any one need).  Faith-based agencies may also be serving more clients who are not literally homeless.  Finally, faith-based non-profits are much less likely than their secular counterparts to receive government funding.  The majority receive no government funds at all, while less than one-quarter of secular non-profits do.  Almost a quarter of secular non-profits rely on government funds exclusively, compared to less than 3 percent of faith-based programs.

In reviewing these findings it is important to understand that while there may be true differences in the characteristics of faith-based and secular non-profit service providers, many of the observed overall differences are likely to be driven by the types of programs the two groups of agencies tend to run.  Faith-based service providers oversee over half of all food programs, while secular non-profits run a similarly large share of homeless housing programs.  Food programs by their very nature, and especially as compared to housing programs, are likely to serve larger numbers and types of clients, not have a special focus, and receive less government funding.  As this analysis has shown, however, there are some interesting differences between faith-based and secular non-profits even within a single type of program, like food or housing programs.  One should also remember that the NSHAPC data reflect the homeless assistance system of 1996 and do not, therefore, reflect events such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 that may have resulted in increasing demands on charitable organizations.  Future research on homeless assistance programs should examine whether the clients of faith-based, secular non-profit, and government-run agencies differ in any 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 agency’s 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.

The American public is supportive of the general idea of government funding of social services provided by faith-based groups, but this support diminishes when they are given specific details about how this might work (Morin 2001).  There are still many ways that government can support the social service components of faith-based organizations (see Appendix B), and only a few of these raise unresolved legal objections.  To the extent that faith-based agencies are already eligible for government grants and other forms of support and are wanting additional government funds, any unnecessary barriers need to be identified and removed.  These might include improving their knowledge and understanding of government funding opportunities, and assisting them in developing their financial, administrative, and managerial capacities. 

Finally, 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 (National Alliance to End Homelessness 2000, Burt 2001).  Faith-based providers have a very important role to play in this.  They have missions that extend beyond homeless assistance and may have much longer-term (possibly lifelong) relationships with members of their communities.  Secular non-profits may be more narrowly focused on homeless assistance.  Adequate and affordable housing, a living wage, and critical support services such as childcare and substance abuse treatment, are key to reducing homelessness.  But more basic support services 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 NSHAPC data make clear that many faith-based organizations are already providing very high levels of such assistance.