The 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients: A Comparison of Faith-Based and Secular Non-Profit Programs. 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.  There is now a virtual “industry” of homeless assistance programs, and initial analyses of NSHAPC data provide a first glimpse at this system of programs: in February 1996, about 40,000 programs across the country received an estimated 3 million service contacts in 21,000 service locations.  Housing programs are the most common type of program (40 percent of the total), followed by food programs (33 percent), and health programs (7 percent).  Other types of programs account for the remaining 20 percent of homeless assistance programs.  About one-half of homeless assistance programs are located in central cities, another one-third are in rural areas, and the remaining 19 percent are in suburban/urban fringe communities.

Much of the recent growth in homeless assistance has been fueled by new investments of public funds.  Beginning in 1987 with the passage of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (P.L. 100-77), federal government investments in homeless assistance programs grew from $350 million to almost $1.5 billion in fiscal year 1995.  There is now “a two billion dollar a year infrastructure designed to deal with the problem” of homelessness (National Alliance to End Homelessness 2000), and the Bush administration recently announced more than $1 billion in grants to HUD’s Continuum of Care and Emergency Shelter Grant programs — an amount it describes as “the largest amount of homeless assistance in history” (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2001).

Faith-based and other secular non-profit organizations have a long history of helping homeless people.

Homeless service providers have not always benefited from such public support.  Faith-based and other secular non-profit organizations have a long history of helping homeless people and others in desperate need, and prior to the early 1980s almost all formal services for homeless people were administered by such organizations with little or no government support.  Many religious non-profits continue to operate with little or no government funding and yet they play a critical role in helping homeless people:  preliminary analyses of NSHAPC reveal that they administer over one-half of all food programs and about a quarter of housing and other (non-health) programs.

A more detailed examination of religious or faith-based non-profits within the homeless assistance service delivery system is clearly needed.  It is of particular interest given President Bush’s desire to improve funding opportunities for faith-based and other community organizations.1  The White House recently issued a report (2001) summarizing initial findings from five federal Departments, including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, on barriers to the participation of faith-based and other community organizations in the delivery of social services in collaboration with the federal government.  The report describes a bias against faith- and community-based organizations among federal social service programs by restricting certain organizations from applying for funding, and overburdening small organizations with cumbersome regulations and requirements.  It also notes that small faith-based and secular non-profit service providers receive very little government support compared to the services they provide.  To address some of these problems, President Bush has established Centers of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives within the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and other federal agencies.  The centers have been charged with developing and coordinating outreach and other department-wide efforts to better inform faith-based and other community organizations on initiatives and funding opportunities; proposing programs that would increase the participation of faith-based and other community organizations in federal, state, and local initiatives; and reviewing and promoting compliance of relevant programs with “charitable choice” provisions2 (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2001).  In his budget for 2002, the President also established the Compassion Capital Fund to “provide grants to charitable organizations to emulate model social service programs and to encourage research on the best practices of social service organizations…”  This fund has been appropriated $30 million for 2002 and these will be used to match private giving with Federal dollars.

Non-profits are a very diverse group of organizations — so diverse that some people have even questioned the usefulness of grouping them together within a single sector.  They are distinctive in that they “engage people in collective purposes outside of the market and the state and are independently organized and self governing” but are extremely varied in their origins, sizes, finances, the types of activities they undertake, the people they serve, and the means they use to reach their goals (Boris 1998).  In general, much of what we know about organizations in the non-profit sector has been limited to public-serving organizations that are eligible to receive tax-deductible donations (501[c][3] organizations), that are large enough to be required to file annual reports to the IRS (over $25,000 in revenues), and that are required to do so.  Relatively little is known about faith-based non-profits because they are not required to report to the IRS (Boris 1998).3

This study examines new data from the National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC) with an explicit focus on comparing homeless assistance programs administered by faith-based organizations and secular non-profit service providers.  It provides a basic but comprehensive picture of the numbers and characteristics of faith-based versus secular service providers, including how the two groups compare in terms of specific types of programs; numbers of program contacts;  types of clients and special population focus (battered women, families, runaway youth, people with alcohol, drug or mental health problems, etc.); program administrators’ assessments of homeless clients’ needs; how clients are referred to the program; where clients of housing programs go after leaving the program; and how much government funding they receive.  In addition, when national findings vary in important ways by urban-rural location or region of the country, these too are reported.

1.  President Bush’s Faith-Based and Community Initiative has raised a number of legal objections which for some people remain unresolved.  A Senate bill introducing the Charity Aid, Recovery, and Empowerment (CARE) Act has received bipartisan agreement and aims to “harness the enormous potential of charitable organizations to help the Federal Government solve pressing social problems” (Lieberman 2002).  The Act would provide for (1) tax incentives to spur more private charitable giving, (2) innovative programs to promote savings and economic self-sufficiency among low-income families, (3) technical assistance to help smaller social service providers do more good works, (4) narrowly-targeted efforts to remove unfair barriers facing faith-based groups in competing fairly for federal aid, and (5) additional federal funding for essential social service programs.

2.  Charitable Choice is a legislative provision designed to allow religious organizations to compete for federal funding on the same basis as other social service providers, without impairing the religious character of such organizations and without diminishing the religious freedom of beneficiaries of assistance.  Currently, Charitable Choice applies to three block grant programs at DHHS: the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, the Community Services Block Grant (CSBG) program, and the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant and discretionary grants.  The provision also covers the PATH (Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness) program.

3.  While the term “faith-based organization” is not defined in the law, it is generally used to refer to religious organizations or religiously affiliated not-for-profit entities.  Those providing social services fall into two categories: (1) sectarian (pervasively religious organizations such as churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.) and (2) non-sectarian (separate, secular organizations created by religious organizations to provide social services) (U.S. Government Accounting Office 2002).