Barriers to Using Mainstream Programs

RCED-00-184: Published: Jul 6, 2000. Publicly Released: Jul 6, 2000.

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Stanley J. Czerwinski
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the ability of homeless people to obtain assistance through mainstram federal programs, focusing on: (1) why homeless people cannot always access or effectively use federal mainstream programs; and (2) how the federal government can improve homeless people's access to, and use of, these programs.

GAO noted that: (1) homeless people are often unable to access and use federal mainstream programs because of the inherent conditions of homelessness as well as the structure and operations of the programs themselves; (2) while all low-income populations face barriers to applying for, retaining, and using the services provided by mainstream programs, these barriers are compounded by the inherent conditions of homelessness, such as transience, instability, and a lack of basic resources; (3) furthermore, the underlying structure and operations of federal mainstream programs are often not conducive to ensuring that the special needs of homeless people are met; (4) for example, federal programs do not always include service providers with expertise and experience in addressing the needs of homeless people; (5) these providers may not be organized or equipped to serve homeless people, may not be knowledgeable about their special needs, or may not have the sensitivity or experience to treat homeless clients with respect; (6) in addition, the federal government's system for providing assistance to low-income people is highly fragmented, which, among other things, can make it difficult to develop an integrated approach to helping homeless people, who often have multiple needs; (7) alleviating these barriers would require the federal government to address a number of long-standing and complex issues; (8) the expert panel GAO convened discussed a variety of strategies the federal government could pursue to improve homeless people's access to, and use of, mainstream federal programs; (9) these included: (a) improving the integration and coordination of federal programs; (b) making the process of applying for federal assistance easier; (c) improving outreach to homeless people; (d) ensuring an appropriate system of incentives for serving homeless people; and (e) holding mainstream programs more accountable for serving homeless people; (10) most of these issues are not new, and federal agencies have tried to address them for years with varied degrees of success; (11) at the same time, however, panel members noted that federal agencies could do more to incorporate into mainstream programs the various lessons learned from McKinney Act programs and demonstration projects targeted to homeless people; and (12) these demonstration projects have developed effective approaches to serving homeless people.

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