Policymakers face many fundamental questions in deciding how government should respond to the immediate needs of homeless families and individuals a place to live and the food, clothes, health care, and other items they require. Mainstream federal programs, such as disability assistance, welfare, Medicaid, and assisted housing, provide income and in-kind assistance to meet the needs of low-income people, including those who are homeless. For two reasons, these same programs also provide both incentives and a range of services to encourage employment. First, any assistance that is income conditioned can have the unintended consequence of discouraging work, because earnings reduce or eliminate the assistance for which people qualify. Second, programs that try to meet individuals immediate needs also seek to respond to individuals longer-term need and desire to pursue economic independence. As a result, employment and income supports are closely linked in the mainstream programs that provide the bulk of government assistance to people who are or have been homeless.
This paper synthesizes the findings of recent studies examining the efforts of mainstream programs to increase employment and also reduce immediate hardships among families and individuals who are homeless. These findings indicate that mainstream programs those serving large populations of which homeless individuals are a small segment meet many of the basic needs of some groups of homeless people, but struggle to promote employment by these groups while continuing to provide income and other support. They also show that other groups of people who are homeless receive little income or employment support. This is partly due to the difficulty that some individuals and families have in accessing mainstream programs. More fundamentally, however, most mainstream programs do not serve adults unaccompanied by dependent children unless the former have severe and documented disabilities.
This paper also considers programs specifically targeted to homeless people. The homeless assistance programs funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development include employment services as fundable activities. The Department of Health and Human Services funds a Transitional Living Program for homeless youth that provides an array of services, including job attainment skills. The Department of Labor funds a Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program, emphasizing employment. In addition, mainstream federal employment programs and demonstrations have particular local grantees that target homeless people. However, the available research on such employment initiatives targeted to homeless people is limited to descriptive reviews and qualitative studies that do not provide hard evidence on the effectiveness of the employment services. We are not aware of experimental studies specifically focused on evaluating employment strategies for any homeless population. In contrast, several experimental investigations have addressed the mainstream programs that serve larger populations, including people who are or have been homeless, and we attempt to tease out of those evaluations implications for homeless people.
Our review of the research evidence is organized by federal agency. While the federal government has undertaken efforts to coordinate policies for people who are homeless through state Policy Academies funded by HHS, through HUDs continuum of care planning and application process, and through the Interagency Council on Homelessness each agency responds to the segment of the overall homeless population for which it is responsible, providing (or funding state and local governments to provide) the types of income and in-kind support Congress has mandated. For example, the Social Security Administration serves people with disabilities; the Department of Veterans Affairs serves veterans, particularly veterans with disabilities; the Department of Health and Human Services provides income support for families with children and, through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), funds activities that support the resilience and recovery of people with mental illness and substance use disorders. HUDs mainstream housing assistance programs serve all types of low-income households, as does the Food Stamps program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The federal governments most powerful work support tool, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), is targeted largely to families with children and administered by the Internal Revenue Service.
The Department of Labor is the lead federal agency for supporting employment across the population spectrum. However, because income support and in-kind benefits programs may create disincentives to working, each federal agency that serves low-income people has produced its own work-support strategy, leading to an array of federal programs that have employment as their objective. Those programs often focus on people who face barriers to work as do many homeless individuals and families. Therefore, before turning to our agency-by-agency review of the research literature, we describe the barriers to employment that may challenge the capacity of mainstream programs to support the work efforts of homeless people.