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Highlights

Multiple federal programs provide homelessness assistance through programs targeted to those experiencing homelessness or through mainstream programs that broadly assist low-income populations. Programs' definitions of homelessness range from including primarily people in homeless shelters or on the street to also including those living with others because of economic hardship. GAO was asked to address (1) the availability, completeness, and usefulness of federal data on homelessness, (2) the extent to which research identifies factors associated with experiencing homelessness, and (3) how differences in definitions and other factors impact the effectiveness of programs serving those experiencing homelessness. GAO reviewed laws, agency regulations, performance and planning documents, and data as well as literature on homelessness, and spoke with stakeholders, such as government officials and service providers, about potential barriers.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Health and Human Services 1. To improve their understanding of homelessness and to help mitigate the barriers posed by having differences in definitions of homelessness and related terminology, the Secretaries of Education, HHS, and HUD---working through the U. S. Interagency Council on Homelessness--should develop joint federal guidance that establishes a common vocabulary for discussing homelessness and related terms. Such guidance may allow these and other agencies on the Interagency Council on Homelessness to collaborate more effectively to provide coordinated services to those experiencing homelessness.
Closed - Implemented
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) worked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), with support from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness, over the last couple of years to develop common data standards for each agency's homelessness programs, which were released by HUD on May 1, 2014. The common data standards will allow a broader range of federal programs to have comparable data on homelessness. The revised new data standards include the required data elements and reporting categories for several programs funded by HHS, HUD, and VA. Over the long term, the new data standards can simplify how service providers funded by multiple federal programs satisfy reporting requirements. The release of this guidance marks a significant step toward alignment of data on homelessness across federal programs.
Department of Education 2. To improve their understanding of homelessness and to help mitigate the barriers posed by having differences in definitions of homelessness and related terminology, the Secretaries of Education, HHS, and HUD---working through the U. S. Interagency Council on Homelessness--should develop joint federal guidance that establishes a common vocabulary for discussing homelessness and related terms. Such guidance may allow these and other agencies on the Interagency Council on Homelessness to collaborate more effectively to provide coordinated services to those experiencing homelessness.
Closed - Implemented
On October 24, 2016, we met with officials regarding this recommendation. We expected the information we received on December 21, 2016 to contain an update on this recommendation but it did not. We met with officials again on March 27, 2017 to discuss what had been provided so far and what additional documentation we needed. On May 17, 2017, we received additional documentation of the department's involvement with the other agencies and USICH developing joint federal guidance and data standards. The documentation consisted of workgroup results, bulletins, and publications issued by the department and other agencies. This documentation allowed us to close this recommendation as implemented.
Department of Housing and Urban Development 3. To improve their understanding of homelessness and to help mitigate the barriers posed by having differences in definitions of homelessness and related terminology, the Secretaries of Education, HHS, and HUD---working through the U. S. Interagency Council on Homelessness--should develop joint federal guidance that establishes a common vocabulary for discussing homelessness and related terms. Such guidance may allow these and other agencies on the Interagency Council on Homelessness to collaborate more effectively to provide coordinated services to those experiencing homelessness.
Closed - Implemented
On May 1, 2014, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) released the 2014 Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) Data Dictionary and HMIS Data Manual, with input from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), with support from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. The guidance provided in these two documents will allow a broader range of federal programs to have comparable data on homelessness. The new data manual includes the required data elements and reporting categories for several programs funded by HUD, HHS, and VA. Over the long term, the new data standards can simplify how service providers funded by multiple federal programs satisfy reporting requirements. The release of this guidance marks a significant step toward alignment of data on homelessness across federal programs.
Department of Education 4. To improve their understanding of homelessness and to help mitigate the barriers posed by having differences in definitions of homelessness and related terminology, the Secretaries of Education, HHS, and HUD---working through the U. S. Interagency Council on Homelessness--should determine whether the benefits of using this common vocabulary to develop and implement guidance for collecting consistent federal data on housing status for targeted homelessness programs, as well as mainstream programs that address the needs of low-income populations, would exceed the costs.
Closed - Implemented
On October 24, 2016, we met with officials regarding this recommendation. We expected the information we received on December 21, 2016 to contain an update on this recommendation but it did not contain enough documentation. We met with officials again on March 27, 2017 to discuss what had been provided so far and what additional documentation we needed. On May 17 we received additional documentation allowing us to close this recommendation as implemented.
Department of Housing and Urban Development
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
5. To improve their understanding of homelessness and to help mitigate the barriers posed by having differences in definitions of homelessness and related terminology, the Secretaries of Education, HHS, and HUD---working through the U. S. Interagency Council on Homelessness--should determine whether the benefits of using this common vocabulary to develop and implement guidance for collecting consistent federal data on housing status for targeted homelessness programs, as well as mainstream programs that address the needs of low-income populations, would exceed the costs.
Closed - Implemented
On May 1, 2014, HUD released the 2014 Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) Data Dictionary and HMIS Data Manual, with input from HHS and VA, with support from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness. The guidance provided in these two documents will allow a broader range of federal programs to have comparable data on homelessness. The new data manual includes the required data elements and reporting categories for several programs funded by HUD, HHS, and VA. Over the long term, the new data standards can simplify how service providers funded by multiple federal programs satisfy reporting requirements. HUD determined releasing these materials could be made without additional costs beyond use of existing resources and would achieve the benefits of improving understanding of homelessness issues and mitigating the barriers as described. The release of this guidance marks a significant step toward alignment of data on homelessness across federal programs. Since the release of the report, under the leadership of USICH, HUD and their federal partners have increased federal coordination in various areas. This includes work on homelessness related to veterans, youth, families, domestic violence, and persons experiencing chronic homelessness. As part of these efforts, a common vocabulary has been invaluable as they establish common policies and practices, share resources, and develop metrics and benchmarks to track progress. For example, this includes upcoming guidance on TANF that includes homelessness related questions consistent with the data dictionary.
Department of Health and Human Services 6. To improve their understanding of homelessness and to help mitigate the barriers posed by having differences in definitions of homelessness and related terminology, the Secretaries of Education, HHS, and HUD---working through the U. S. Interagency Council on Homelessness--should determine whether the benefits of using this common vocabulary to develop and implement guidance for collecting consistent federal data on housing status for targeted homelessness programs, as well as mainstream programs that address the needs of low-income populations, would exceed the costs.
Closed - Implemented
HHS officials provided additional information on November 4, 2016. In reviewing this information, we determined it provided support for their determining the benefits and costs of using a common vocabulary for collecting consistent federal data on housing status for targeted homelessness programs. In addition, we obtained documentation from the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness that discusses the use of a common language for mainstream programs.

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