Dennis Sadowski, Catholic News Service


WASHINGTON (CNS) — Small sums of financial assistance can help stabilize housing for low-income people and stave off homelessness and its slew of related social problems, a University of Notre Dame study concluded.

Targeted emergency financial assistance of a few hundred dollars for rent, security deposits, utility payments or another cash emergency, can save taxpayers $20,000 or more each time homelessness is prevented, according to the study published in the August issue of Science magazine.

Cash assistance can keep people off the street for two years or more, said James Sullivan, co-director of Notre Dame’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities and one of the study’s authors, during a Capitol Hill briefing Sept. 15.

“The key takeaway is that … we want to address this one-time emergency so that they stay on their feet, don’t fall under this downward spiral and then they don’t fall into homelessness again in the future,” he said. “This evidence suggests that that’s the in fact what is happening.”

The study looked at the work of the Homelessness Prevention Call Center run by Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago in matching people in danger of being homeless with agencies that could provide cash assistance and other services in a time of need. It contrasted how eligible people fared when funds were available and when funds dried up because of inevitable lulls in distributions from foundations and government.

The report was conducted in collaboration with Catholic Charities USA, which has undertaken an effort to determine the effectiveness of social service programs around the country.

The cash amounts will vary depending on need and locale, but normally would be about $1,000 to help a family or an individual get through a cash flow emergency, explained Msgr. Michael M. Boland, president and CEO of Catholic Charities in Chicago.

“One of the greatest struggles is how do you help a family or an individual who is really struggling in life,” Msgr. Boland said at the briefing.

“Sometimes it’s as simple as $300 or $400 that separates them from actually losing their apartment or actually struggling in life,” he said. “So when you think about that you realize with all the programs that are available, for many people it isn’t that they need tens of thousands of dollars. Sometimes it’s if you could help them with one thing or one bill … it really helps them to be able to work with their own amount of money they have to move toward self-sufficiency.”

Sullivan was joined by Notre Dame colleague William N. Evans, a professor of economics, and Melanie Wallskog, a 2016 graduate of the university, in conducting the study. They looked at 4,448 cases handled by the call center from 2010 to 2012. The call center handles about 75,000 calls a year. Across the country, 93 percent of households live in areas where such a one-stop program exists. Such programs receive more than 15 million calls annually.

The researchers found that rent assistance during times when funding was available led to a 88 percent decline in the probability of someone entering a shelter within three months and 76 percent decline in such a possibility in six months.

On average, the researchers estimated, it costs about $10,300 overall per person to prevent a period of homelessness. That includes costs associated with operating the call center and the funding networks. For very low-income families, the costs drops to about $6,800. Both are far below the estimated $20,000 it costs to meet the needs of someone who becomes homeless.

Msgr. Boland said that because of government and foundation funding cycles, money for rent or utility assistance can be depleted at times. Once an application for assistance was filed, individuals were told whether they were eligible and if funding was available, he said.

The Catholic Charities CEO also explained that services offered to people seeking assistance varied because there are “different gradations of homelessness and how you help them.”

Jane Stenson, senior director of poverty reduction strategies at Catholic Charities USA, told Catholic News Service the information learned in the study will help the agency and its diocesan members begin to address the nationwide need for affordable housing.

“The more we can do to keep people stable, the more we can do in prevention and helping people even that are many months away from homelessness, just to increase the emergency response … that’s critical,” she said.

Sullivan and Catholic Charities officials shared the findings with the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Department of Housing and Urban Development prior to the briefing.