Web-Based Benefit Access Tools: Mitigating Barriers for Special Needs Populations. B. Homeless/Unstably Housed Individuals and Families


Homeless and unstably housed individuals face several barriers to accessing and using online benefits access tools, including lack of documentation, lack of a stable address, fragile support networks, and feelings of stigma and distrust (Kauff et al. 2009). For example, homeless and unstably housed individuals frequently move among shelters, the street, and friends’ and relatives’ homes without carrying the identification or other documentation required for the benefits application process. Because these individuals do not have a stable address, they often have no way of receiving correspondence regarding benefits. Furthermore, they may have limited support networks to rely on for help in connecting to benefit services. Families who are homeless or unstably housed face similar challenges.

The mental health and substance use problems that many in this group face may further compromise their ability to navigate the benefits application process. As many as 77 percent of adults who are homeless report a chronic health condition (Kauff et al. 2009), and on any given night in January 2010, 26.2 percent of all sheltered persons who were homeless had a severe mental illness, while 34 percent of all sheltered adults who were homeless had chronic substance use issues (Paquette 2010). The most common mental health disorder among the homeless population is substance abuse (Fazel et al. 2008). Indeed, a systematic review of the prevalence of mental illness and substance abuse among homeless populations reports that these populations are substantially more likely than the general population to have alcohol and drug dependence (Fazel et al. 2008). These problems limit physical and cognitive functioning and impair an individual’s ability to make decisions and keep appointments (van der Plas et al. 2009), both of which may be necessary to complete an online benefits application process. In addition, approximately 23 percent of individuals who are homeless have been incarcerated (Kushel et al. 2005), which often contributes to the populations’ general distrust of other types of agencies, including health and social service agencies (Nichols and Cazares 2011).

Recognizing these challenges, one of the objectives in "Opening Doors: Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness," the nation’s first comprehensive federal strategic plan to address homelessness, is to improve access to mainstream programs and services to reduce people’s financial vulnerability to homelessness. The federal government is supporting this objective by documenting, disseminating, and promoting the use of best practices in expediting access to income and work supports, including online consolidated application processing and electronic submission.

Additionally, given their barriers and needs, homeless/unstably housed individuals might benefit from the following:

  • Intensive outreach strategies focused on engagement and allaying distrust of case or social workers
  • Screening and application assistance through an authorized representative who can receive program communication on the applicant’s behalf
  • Electronic verification of application information for those who lack physical documentation of identity, income, assets, expenses, and other program eligibility parameters
  • Assistance obtaining an email address for sending and receiving electronic communication

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