Abt Associates: Bold thinkers driving real-world impact
Abt Associates recently completed a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) study measuring the costs of providing assistance to first-time homeless individuals and families. The comprehensive study breaks new ground examining such costs, and the research produced substantial new data that will guide future policies and programs — at both the national and community level — focused on addressing this critical social challenge. The final study report was released in March.
Conducted for HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research, the study sheds light on recent demographic shifts in the homeless population. Prior research on costs primarily has focused on the chronically homeless and has served as the basis for developing policy and programs. But the dynamics of homelessness in America are changing. Over the past year, HUD recorded a 56% increase in rural and suburban family homelessness. Unlike the chronically homeless, these populations tend to utilize fewer services and for a shorter period, necessitating different solution strategies.
In addition, past research derived cost information from program reimbursement rates. According to Brooke Spellman, Abt Associates Project Director, "Our approach drilled down to get a more accurate picture of the real cost of assistance services for the first-time homeless." One element of this work required matching the data sets of homeless services and mainstream support systems. Spellman also noted that the study is one of the most rigorous applications of new standardized data sets developed by HUD, which offer extensive client-level detail and allow for accurate comparisons across large samples.
Homeless Services Delivery Models
Emergency Shelter (Individuals)
Limited support services, primarily overnight accommodations
Emergency Shelter (Families)
Extensive support services, 24-hour accommodations and staffing
Permanent Supportive Housing
For the study, Abt Associates identified 8,876 individual and family households in six communities who entered the homeless services system for the first time during a one-year period. Participants’ use of homeless services was tracked for 18 months following initial system entry, based on review of client-level administrative data. Cost data for each service facility was measured and used to calculate homeless system costs for each household. In addition, the project measured participants’ use of mainstream support services, including Medicaid primary healthcare, mental health care, and substance abuse treatment; state-funded mental health care and substance abuse treatment; law enforcement and criminal justice; and income supports.
The study results show that, for homeless individuals, emergency shelters have the lowest average costs. Conversely, shelters are the most expensive service model for families. This distinction partly reflects the extensive support services and 24-hour facility access provided by family shelters.
Validating and amplifying past research, this study identified three distinct patterns of homelessness among both first-time homeless individuals and families.
“These findings clearly demonstrate that different types of homeless families and individuals utilize system resources in different ways,” Spellman explained.
The study provides valuable data to help guide homeless policy and program refinements. A key finding is that a “one size fits all” service model is not the most cost-effective strategy. The study recommends that communities target clients with only the services they need, which may suggest focusing on quickly rehousing those with low needs and referring those with more intensive needs to transitional or permanent supportive housing. These findings support the Obama administration’s emerging philosophy of housing the homeless as the first priority in providing assistance.
The study’s cost data and tracking methodology, combined with recommendations of issues for local communities to explore, can also help communities as they implement the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act of 2009. The legislation directs communities to develop strategies to address homelessness, laying out concrete performance measures. Spellman noted that community homeless services directors have lauded the study as a valuable tool to help them achieve their goals.
The final report for the study is available on the HUD web site. http://www.huduser.org/portal/publications/povsoc/cost_homelessness.html
This recent study begins to answer questions about which interventions are appropriate for particular homeless subgroups. The next step is to measure program outcomes and programs’ relative cost effectiveness. Abt Associates is beginning work on a new HUD study that addresses these issues. Focusing on both first-time and repeat homeless families, the new study will build upon the findings of the recently released cost study and will further guide policy responses at the national and local level.
Abt Associates is a mission-driven, global leader in research, evaluation and program implementation in the fields of health, social and environmental policy, and international development. Known for its rigorous approach to solving complex challenges, Abt Associates is regularly ranked as one of the top 20 global research firms and one of the top 40 international development innovators. The company has multiple offices in the U.S. and program offices in more than 40 countries.