Print this page

Social services

Better coordination of federal homelessness programs may minimize fragmentation and overlap

Why Area Is Important

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), approximately 643,000 individuals and persons in families experienced homelessness on a single night in January 2009. Multiple federal programs provide assistance targeted to those experiencing homelessness or more broadly assist low-income populations. GAO reported that in 2009 federal agencies spent about $2.9 billion on over 20 programs targeted to address the various needs of persons experiencing homelessness. Some federal programs may offer similar types of services and serve similar populations, potentially leading to overlap or fragmentation.

In June 2010, GAO recommended that the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services (HHS), and HUD develop a common vocabulary to better coordinate homeless services. GAO also recommended in July 2010 that HUD and HHS consider more formally linking their housing and supportive services programs. The agencies concurred with these recommendations and to date have taken some actions to address them.

What GAO Found

Several federal agencies provide a range of programs that offer not only housing assistance but also supportive services to those experiencing homelessness and to those at risk of becoming homeless, but coordination of these programs varies by program and agency. A number of federal programs are specifically targeted to address issues related to homelessness while other mainstream programs that are generally designed to help low-income individuals by providing housing assistance and services such as health care, job training, and food assistance may also serve those experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless. In some cases, different agencies may be offering similar types of services to similar populations. For example, GAO reported in July 2010 that at least seven federal agencies administered more than 20 programs that provide some type of shelter or housing assistance. Similarly, five agencies administered programs that deliver food and nutrition services, and four agencies administered programs that provide health services including mental health services and substance abuse treatment. This range of programs has resulted in a fragmented service system. Fragmentation and overlap in some of these programs may be due in part to their legislative creation as separate programs under the jurisdiction of several agencies.[1]Moreover, additional programs have since developed incrementally over time to address the specific needs of certain segments of the population. Nevertheless, this fragmentation can create difficulties for people in accessing services as well as administrative burdens for providers who must navigate various application requirements, selection criteria, and reporting requirements. Fragmentation of programs across federal agencies has also resulted in differing methods for collecting data on those experiencinghomelessness. In part because of the lack of comprehensive data collection requirements, the data have limited usefulness. Complete and accurate data are essential for understanding and meeting the needs of those who are experiencing homelessness and to prevent homelessness from occurring.

Coordination among targeted homelessness programs and with other mainstream programs that support individuals or families experiencing homelessness includes agencies working together on program guidance and prevention strategies. In July 2010, GAO reported that agencies had taken some steps toward improved coordination and that the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) has provided a renewed focus on such coordination. However, the lack of federal coordination was still viewed by some local service providers as an important barrier to the effective delivery of services to those experiencing homelessness. Without more formal coordination of federal programs to specifically include the linking of supportive services and housing, federal efforts to address homelessness may remain fragmented and not be as effective as they could be.

[1]Many federal programs providing services to persons experiencing homelessness were created by the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Pub. L. No. 100-77 (1987). The act, enacted originally as the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, was renamed in 2000. Pub. L. No. 106-400. The act originally consisted of 15 programs providing a range of services to persons experiencing homelessness,including emergency shelter, transitional housing, job training, primary health care, education, and some permanent housing.

Actions Needed

Federal agencies have taken some positive steps to improve coordination of programs that benefit those experiencing homelessness and reduce overlap and fragmentation but more needs to be done. In 2010, the 19 members and staff of USICH, including the Departments of Education, HUD, and HHS, worked collaboratively to develop a plan—the Federal Strategic Plan to Prevent and End Homelessness. The plan is an important first step that recognizes that to prevent and end homelessness, targeted and mainstream programs including housing, health, education, and human services must be coordinated. Consistent with recent GAO recommendations, a key plan objective is to increase collaborative planning and better target initiatives to populations that need support across multiple systems.

In keeping with GAO's previous recommendations and the plan's objective to increase coordination, it will be important for the federal agencies that have adopted the plan to develop implementation plans that include but are not limited to a project schedule, resource allocation, outreach measures, and a performance measurement strategy to evaluate their progress. The plan recognizes that collection, analysis, and reporting of quality, timely data on homelessness are essential for targeting interventions, tracking results, strategic planning, and resource allocation. As noted above, currently each federal program generally has distinct data requirements. The plan acknowledges that a common data standard and uniform performance measures across all federal programs that are targeted at homelessness would facilitate greater understanding and simplify local data management. Consistent with the plan, representatives with USICH noted that agencies are taking steps to improve and coordinate data, specifically citing the December 2010 announcement by the Department of Veterans Affairs to participate in Homeless Information Management Systems over the next 12 months.[1]The formal coordination among agencies outlined in this plan may minimize fragmentation of federal programs and help address gaps in supportive services while linking housing and supportive services. The linking of these services is considered to be important for effectively delivering assistance to those experiencing homelessness.

Implementation challenges could hamper efforts to increase agency coordination as outlined in the plan. For example, according to representatives with USICH, agencies may face challenges in coordinating plans, programs, and activities because of individual agency regulations that could prohibit sharing budgetary or other predecisional program information. Nevertheless, to facilitate interagency coordination, the plan encourages identifying and removing barriers to working together and seeking opportunities to conduct data matches and share data on those experiencing homelessness. It also indicates agencies at the state and local levels could review budget processes to determine if avenues exist for recognizing savings across partners and seek opportunities for engaging congressional committees jointly on issues related to preventing and ending homelessness. Despite these potential challenges, it is important for agencies to improve collaborative efforts as outlined in the plan. Given the importance of these issues, GAO believes that coordination of targeted and mainstream federal programs could benefit from increased Office of Management and Budget and congressional oversight.

GAO plans to examine further the extent to which these programs have been evaluated on their efficiency and effectiveness and the potential benefits of consolidating or eliminating federal programs that deliver services to those experiencing homelessness. GAO also plans to evaluate what other options may more fully address fragmentation and overlap and achieve operational improvements, efficiencies, or financial savings.

[1]The Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) is a software application designed to record and store information on the characteristics and service needs of those experiencing homelessness. HUD and other planners and policymakers at the federal, state, and local levels can use aggregate HMIS data to obtain information about the extent and nature of homelessness over time. Specifically, HMIS can be used to produce an unduplicated count of homeless persons, understand patterns of service use, and measure the effectiveness of homeless programs.

Framework for Analysis

GAO reviewed prior reports, listed under the "Related GAO Products" tab, about federal agencies that provide homelessness assistance. GAO also obtained information from representatives of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness as well as national policy and advocacy organizations that deal with issues of homelessness.

Area Contact

For additional information about this area, contact Alicia Puente Cackley at (202) 512-8678 or

Related GAO Products

Go to the Next Area

Jump to another area below related to this mission.