Bloomberg Officials Tout Meager Findings of Prevention Study While Still Withholding Housing Aid

A controversial study of the Homebase prevention program found that it did little to prevent homelessness and saved a mere $140 per family. But Mayor Bloomberg still stubbornly withholds permanent housing aid that would both reduce NYC’s record homeless shelter population AND save nearly $15 million each year.

The study of the Homebase prevention program was controversial from the moment it was revealed back in 2010. To conduct the study, the NYC Department of Homeless Services and researchers actually denied prevention assistance to some 200 families who had come to Homebase offices seeking help, whether the families participated in the study or not. Tina Moore of the New York Daily News, who broke the story three years ago, reported on a hearing in which New York City Council members heatedly criticized the study:

“This study raises profound and serious ethical questions,” said Councilwoman Annabel Palma, who chaired the packed hearing held by the general welfare committee.

Council members grilled city officials and researchers over whether people were given a choice to participate.

“You can opt out of the research, but you can’t opt into the services,” said Howard Rolston, of the research firm Abt Associates, as a murmur went through the crowd.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said the confusing consent form families must sign would puzzle a lawyer: “For that reason alone, this experiment must be stopped.”

Now the final study (PDF) has been released, and the findings about the Homebase program’s impact are underwhelming at best. The study finds that families who received Homebase services stayed in the municipal shelter system only an estimated 22.6 days less on average over a 27-month period than families who did not receive the services. And the estimated savings to taxpayers: only $140 per family (not including the nearly $600,000 spent to conduct the study). And so far City officials have not revealed what actually happened to the “control group” families who were denied help.

Nevertheless, Bloomberg administration officials are touting the study as some kind of major breakthrough. Never mind the fact that, from the time the study was begun until now, the NYC homeless shelter population rose from 37,000 to more than 50,000 people per night, and the number of homeless children from 15,000 to 21,000 per night, the highest levels in the city’s history.

Ginia Bellafante of the New York Times got an early look at the report, and summed it up in her remarkable column this week:

[The Homebase program] is a good idea — with a federal funding stream, at a time when federal money for subsidized housing has been drastically curtailed — but it has had only negligible success. Recently, the city released the results of a study it had conducted, which looked at the outcomes for a sample of 295 families, 150 of them in receipt of Homebase services and a control group of 145 that was not. Between 2010 and 2012, the families receiving services spent about 22.6 fewer nights in shelters on average than those that were not part of Homebase. Though this is a statistically significant result, it is hardly an impressive one, especially in light of the fact that the average stay for a family in the shelter system is now 13 months, up from 9 months in 2011, and the city is experiencing record levels of homelessness with 50,000 people, including 21,000 children, in shelters every night.

The meager findings of the Homebase study must be contrasted with the NYC Independent Budget Office’s analysis of the effect of targeted permanent housing assistance for homeless families:

IBO found that implementing the policy outlined in the City Council proposal would result in a net reduction in the family shelter census, despite a decline in the number of families that would leave shelter on their own without a subsidy and a slight increase in the number of families entering the shelter system.

IBO found that savings would be proportional to the number of placements made. Family shelter costs would be reduced by a total of $14.7 million with 2,500 placements and $29.4 million with 5,000 placements. With family shelter funding shared between the federal, state, and city governments, slightly more than a third of the reduction, about $5.5 million and $11.0 million, respectively, would reflect savings for the city. [Emphasis added.]

So let’s review. Mayor Bloomberg and his administration repeatedly pride themselves on making policy decisions based on the data and evidence. Yet they tout the meager findings of the Homebase study, while adamantly, persistently refusing to adopt the housing-based policies proven both to reduce homelessness and to save money – all the while unnecessarily consigning thousands of vulnerable children and families to the hardships of the shelter system. Here’s hoping that New York City’s next mayor makes wiser choices for homeless people and NYC taxpayers.

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