Toward Understanding Homelessness: The 2007 National Symposium on Homelessness Research. Historical and Contextual Influences on the U.S. Response to Contemporary Homelessness. Providers of Assistance


Homeless persons need to receive their services from someone or some organization. However, our knowledge of the provider component of the suggested system of service is minimal. Providers of homelessness assistance have evolved through significant changes. Responses to homelessness in the 1980s were often by individual, community-based programs, many of which were faith-based, communicating and coordinating informally with related providers (ICH, 1992). Over time, funding requirements and knowledge developments created circumstances that require these organizations to have more formal structures (e.g., data and accounting systems, boards of directors) and to define their operations within an increasingly organized local context.

Today, providers of homelessness assistance are functioning in the midst of increased targeting to reduce and end homelessness, a sharpened set of service tools, and a network of organizational collaborations (to be discussed in the next section). In addition to these dynamics, they are affected by changes occurring in the funding of homeless services. The budgets of most of the main federal programs providing funding specifically for homeless assistance have traditionally fared well or at least not seen cutbacks. Exhibit 6 shows these changes:

Exhibit 6
Homeless Assistance Program Funding
Program FY 2002 FY 2007 Change
HUDs Homeless Assistance $1,123B $1,536 $+413M
VA expenditure on homeless services[6] 138M 244 +106M
Projects for Assistance in Transition from Homelessness 40M 54 +14M
Healthcare for the Homeless 116M 172 +56M
Education for Homeless Children and Youths 50M 62 +12M

In addition to these resources, the Department of Labor has also emphasized homelessness, with its homeless assistance webpage ( indicating more than $65 million in 2006 awards.

However, as providers seek out these resources, they must also respond to the conditions inherent in any awards received. We have only limited systematic data that give insight into how providers are responding to these dynamics (HUD, 2007). The 1996 National Survey on Homeless Assistance Providers and Clients (NSHAPC) (Burt et al., 1999) was the last opportunity to compile extensive data on the number, affiliation, and services offered by such providers. There are no current federal plans to repeat the data collection. The HMIS database, however, allows HUD to accumulate some data on providers that are submitted annually to Congress.

In its 2007 submission (HUD, 2007), HUD provided limited data comparing 1996 and 2005 for bed availability in emergency shelters, transitional and permanent housing. While 3600 programs have been added, bed growth came exclusively from permanent (211 percent increase) and transitional housing (68 percent increase), with emergency shelter beds declining by 38 percent. As HUD has focused on the goal of ending chronic homelessness, emphasized its role as a housing program, and used its annual homeless competitions to shape community behavior, these emphases have had consequences for providers as reflected in these bed data.

Other factors are undoubtedly influencing the performance of providers. For example, another emphasis by HUD is that grant applicants demonstrate access to other, non-HUD revenue sources for delivery of non-housing services. We currently lack data or analysis of how providers seeking HUD funding have responded and whether they have been successful in leveraging and matching such funds to support non-housing services. In addition, the explicit goals of ending homelessness/chronic homelessness, the development of action plans by State Interagency Councils, and the development of city/county plans in 300-plus jurisdictions are just a few of the factors that must be impacting how providers are conceptualizing their missions, services, and their personnel needs. Important as these trends may be, we continue to lack systematic data about how providers are responding.

These are fundamental data that are needed to develop and improve the operation of a homeless system of service. Without these data, we lack basic information on the universe of organizations that are homeless assistance providers and on such issues as the types and amounts of services they can offer, the numbers of people they can serve, the qualifications of their staff, the quality of their business and service procedures, and whether assertive action is needed to influence duplications or gaps in the existing configurations.

In comments on the paper offered at the Symposium, both Haggerty (2007) and Karnas (2007) raised issues associated with the provider community. Haggerty suggests that the current approaches to provider funding have resulted in an overly large number of providers without achieving the degree of coordination among provider that funders expect. She asked if the time had come for consolidation among homeless assistance providers and noted the substantial siphoning of resources into overhead when a large number of multiple providers are sustained. Karnas observed that provider growth had been stimulated by community self-determination inherent in the original continuum of care concept. Although self-determination had slowly been amended by an increasing number of conditions imposed by HUD, the laissez-faire approach of the past is no longer viable. Grantees must be directed toward certain actions since targeted homeless assistance will never be sufficient to meet needs. While subpopulation targeting might be one example, Karnas was explicit about the need for providers to capitalize on the services delivered by mainstream programs designed to assist low-income and disadvantaged persons. Both comments speak to the importance of having a more detailed understanding of provider characteristics than is currently available.

Exhibit 7
System Component:
Significant development:
  • Unknown: Possibility of adapting to change


  • Realignment of services offered
  • Focus on staff skills to deliver services
  • Improved organizational effectiveness and efficiency


  • Absence of data to track and analyze changes
  • Adapting to change

Future directions:

  • Analyze grant program databases
  • Activities to support organizational change 

In addition to the absence of data, we must acknowledge that providers face substantial challenges connected to the translational research discussed above. If a program accepts evidence indicating an alternate service approach is superior and decides to change, complications lie ahead. Securing the funding for the service, finding time and resources to retrain staff, facing the possibility of having to replace staff, ensuring that the new service is delivered with fidelity to the model, and demonstrating to partners that the organization is effective are examples of the complications service managers address. Inherent resistance to change must also be acknowledged. Programs of technical assistance specifically associated with homelessness funding might usefully focus on how best to assist providers as they adapt to changes related to evolving goals, data requirements, types of services supported, and the multi-agency collaborations now required of them.

Some would argue that annual reporting to funders is a source for the information on providers. But as the history review reminds us, not all organizations that assist low-income and homeless persons are formal participants in such funding. Some of the problems are also associated with the legislative authorizations for homeless assistance programs. Eligibility for beneficiaries can be inconsistent across programs (e.g., the poverty level at which a person/family qualifies); the services supported with funding may be so prescribed that only limited aspects of clients needs can be addressed; organizations may need to meet specific criteria to be eligible (e.g., through charter or certification); and the authorizing legislation itself may specify the frequency and type of reporting. These variations must be dutifully accounted for by responsible state and federal agencies and they result in reporting of varied content and time frames that can be difficult or impossible to reconcile.

Providers are an essential component of the system of services, but this section has argued that our knowledge base concerning providers is in need of further development. As the next section will make clear, the expectations imposed on providers are not confined to the provision of services. Stewardship over providers, whether by local, state, federal or nonprofit authorities, has moved many of them toward understanding their operation within a network of other relevant organizations.

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