The 1996 National Survey of Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC) is a comprehensive nationally representative survey of programs providing homeless assistance services and the clients of these programs. The survey was conceived, developed, and funded by 12 federal agencies under the auspices of the Interagency Council on the Homeless.4 The Census Bureau carried out the data collection on behalf of the sponsoring agencies.
NSHAPC data are drawn from a nationally representative sample of homeless assistance programs in 76 primary sampling areas including (1) the 28 largest metropolitan statistical areas in the United States; (2) 24 small and medium-sized metropolitan statistical areas selected at random to be representative of the nation’s four main geographical regions (the northeast, south, midwest, and west) and size; and finally, (3) 24 rural areas (groups of counties or, in New England, groups of smaller administrative units (MCDs) within counties), selected at random from a sampling frame defined as the catchment areas of Community Action Agencies, and representative of geographical regions.5
Within each primary sampling area, all homeless assistance programs offering a direct service were identified.6 For the purposes of NSHAPC, a program — defined as a set of services offered to the same group of people at a single location — had to meet the following specific criteria: (1) be managed or administered by the agency (i.e., the agency provides the staff and funding); (2) be designed to accomplish a particular mission or goal; (3) be offered on an ongoing basis; (4) be focused on homeless persons as an intended population (although not always the only population); and (5) not be limited to referrals or administrative functions. In rural areas, which often lack homeless-specific services (Aron and Fitchen 1996), the definition was expanded to include agencies serving some homeless people even if this was not a focus of the agency. About one-fourth of the rural programs in NSHAPC were included as a result of this expanded definition and they are retained for this analysis. Sixteen types of homeless assistance programs were defined: emergency shelters, transitional housing programs, permanent housing programs, voucher distribution programs for emergency housing, programs accepting vouchers for emergency housing, food pantries, soup kitchens/meal distribution programs, mobile food programs, physical health care programs, mental health programs, alcohol/drug programs, HIV/AIDS programs, outreach programs, drop-in centers, migrant housing programs, and other types of programs.7
The study collected information on homeless assistance programs in two ways. An initial computer-assisted telephone interview (CATI) survey was conducted with representatives of 6,307 service locations offering 11,983 homeless assistance programs.8 The CATI data yielded basic descriptive information about homeless assistance programs. This was followed by a more detailed mail-survey of 5,694 programs. The mail survey was completed by a staff person who knew the program and its clients well, and covered a variety of topics including client needs, the extent to which these needs were met, and whether services9 to meet these needs were available through their own program or other programs in the community.10 The findings reported here are drawn from both sources of program data: the CATI and the mail surveys. In addition to these, interviews with a sample of 4,207 clients of these programs were also part of NSHAPC.11 These client data were not analyzed for this study. The NSHAPC figures reported here have all been weighted to be nationally representative of homeless assistance programs and service locations on an average day in February 1996.12]
4. The 12 federal sponsoring agencies are the U.S. Departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Justice, Labor, and Transportation, and the Social Security Administration, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
5. Central cities are the main or primary cities of metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). Suburban and urban fringe areas are defined as what is left of MSAs after taking out the central cities, and may include smaller cities, suburbs, towns, and even open land if it is in the counties making up the MSA. Rural areas are defined as all areas outside of MSAs, and may include small cities (under 50,000), towns, villages, and open land.
6. Developing a list of all types of homeless assistance providers in each PSU involved multiple steps including developing an initial unduplicated list of potential providers, screening potential providers to determine if they offered programs that met the survey’s definition, and updating the provider list. For more details about these procedures see Tourkin and Hubble (1997).
7. As it happens, no migrant housing programs were identified by NSHAPC and one type of “other” program — financial/housing assistance — was encountered frequently enough to warrant a category of its own. For a more detailed description of each of these programs, see Appendix A.
8. A “service location” is the physical location at which one or more programs operate.
9. NSHAPC defined a “service” as a good or activity offered to people using a program, but not qualifying on its own as a program.
10. After extensive mail and telephone follow-up, the Census Bureau ultimately reached a response rate of about 70 percent for programs that received a mail survey, were active at the time they received the survey, and were in fact the program thought to have been identified through the CATI. Response rates, however, varied by both program type and the number of programs at the service location. Food programs and certain types of other programs were the least likely to complete a mail survey, while health programs unattached to shelter/housing or soup kitchen programs were the most likely to complete a mail survey. Also, programs co-located with four or more other homeless assistance programs were less likely to return the mail survey.
11. A “client” is anyone who uses a program whether or not (s)he is homeless. Interviews were conducted with clients of any age as long as they were not accompanied by a parent or guardian. For more information on the client survey and NSHAPC in general, see Burt et al. (1999) and Burt, Aron, and Lee (2001).
12. All statements comparing two or more percentage figures have been tested for statistical significance, meaning a statistical test was used to determine if differences between the percentages are “significant” in a statistical sense. A 90 percent criterion was used for the tests. Thus, all comparisons discussed in the text are statistically significant at p = 0.10 or better, meaning that there is only a 10 percent chance that the difference is not a true difference.