New 6-year randomized control trial: prevention is a proven solution to keeping families from becoming homeless

For years, our homelessness crisis has been fueled by a troubling trend: for every homeless family we connect to housing, we see more new families pushed into homelessness at the same time. 

Ending our crisis requires us to reduce this “inflow” into homelessness – and new research published by Notre Dame University’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities (LEO) demonstrates the impact of a strategy we’ve piloted in Santa Clara County. Researching the impact of the Santa Clara County Homelessness Prevention System, this randomized control trial affirms what our community has observed locally: immediate financial assistance truly prevents families from becoming homeless and it can also be a cost-effective intervention for addressing homelessness upstream

LEO: Financial assistance ‘significantly reduces homelessness’ 

When Destination: Home helped launch the Santa Clara County Homelessness Prevention System in 2017, we believed that prevention strategies held enormous potential to reduce homelessness at lower costs – and more importantly, spare vulnerable families from needless suffering. From our own internal data, we have seen that the overwhelming majority of families remain stably housed – both during and after leaving the program (view our system metrics page).

However, we also wanted to understand how these outcomes compared to similar families who were not able to receive such assistance. That’s why, when we launched this program, we also partnered with LEO to conduct an independent evaluation of our system and develop what would become the first randomized controlled trial of a homelessness prevention program in the United States.  

In their study, the LEO research team evaluated households at risk of homelessness who applied for assistance from the Homelessness Prevention System between July 2019 and December 2020. The study’s participants were made up of eligible households who scored in the same vulnerability range on their intake assessment and then randomly assigned to one of two groups: one received financial assistance and the other did not.

The results of LEO’s study, which was recently published by The Review of Economics and Statistics, were stark. Individuals and families receiving financial aid were 81% less likely to be homeless within 6 months of enrollment into the program and 73% less likely to become homeless within a year of enrollment. 

In addition to helping individuals and families maintain their housing, the LEO study suggests this community-wide prevention program is cost-effective and yields benefits to our broader community. Researchers estimated that the Homelessness Prevention System produces $2.47 in estimated benefits for every dollar spent on emergency financial assistance.

A Compelling Case for Scaling Homelessness Prevention Programs

The results of LEO’s new study not only validate our local effort, it also provides a compelling case for the need to continue investing in homelessness prevention.

Policymakers at all levels are struggling to make really hard decisions about how to allocate scarce resources to address this pervasive problem. But this study shows that you can actually target the intervention to those at risk, which moves the needle on homelessness enough to justify making the investment

James Sullivan, LEO Co-Founder

That message seems to be spreading across the country: the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness recently made homelessness prevention a key element of the new Federal Strategic Plan, and we continue to see new homelessness prevention programs launching across the region, state and nation.

Here, in Santa Clara County, our broad coalition of partners has already been moving aggressively to expand our homelessness prevention services. In the upcoming year, we’ll increase our capacity to assist at least 2,000 households, bringing us closer to achieving the Community Plan to End Homelessness goal of serving 2,500 households annually by 2025. 

We’re also continuing to look at ways we can refine our current approach for an even greater impact. In particular, we’re working closely with our partners to explore how we can better target our limited homelessness prevention resources to reach those families in our community who are most likely to fall into homelessness without this type of assistance.

Of course, none of this is possible without the hard work of our partnersOur deepest thanks go out to our network of 19 nonprofit partners, led by Sacred Heart Community Service, and dozens of public and private sector funders. Their dedication and commitment have been instrumental in our ability to assist tens of thousands of people over the past six years – including Fernando Cortes, who was recently featured in this article published by our partners at Apple

Fernando Cortez and his son photographed above courtesy of Apple were enrolled in the Homelessness Prevention System during the COVID 19 pandemic Since then Cortez has been invited to join an advisory board to help improve the program

Thanks to this new research, we know that emergency financial assistance can truly serve as a lifeline that prevents more families from being forced onto the streets. Yet, every day, the exorbitant cost of housing in our community pushes more families to the brink.

Now is the time to scale this evidence-based strategy to meet the size of the crisis and ensure more of our neighbors remain safely and stably housed. By working together, we can prevent homelessness before it begins.

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