Study shows Catholic Charities call center prevents homelessness

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2020

A homeless man is pictured in late March 2020 outside a London store in this file photo. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago operates a call center to help prevent families from becoming homeless. (CNS photo/Aaron Chown, PA Wire/PA Images via Reuters)

It might seem like common sense: Giving money to people on the brink of becoming homeless, and they are less likely to use homeless shelters.

But that glosses over other questions, including whether it would better to save limited anti-homelessness funding for people who already are homeless, who are certain to need help, instead of spending it for people who might be able to stay in their homes if they manage to find other resources.

That was one of the questions that the University of Notre Dame’s Lab for Economic Opportunities explored in a 2016 research project undertaken in partnership with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Homelessness Prevention Call Center.

The study was highlighted in a video aired Oct. 17 during halftime of the Notre Dame football game against the University of Louisville.

It found that people who received money to help them stay in their homes were 88% less likely to be homeless after three months and 76% less likely to be homeless after six months, and that it cost about half as much to keep a family in its home than it did to house a family after it became homeless, according to the LEO website. Those who received money were also less likely to commit violent crimes.

“The research showed that at several data points that they didn’t end up in the homeless system, they didn’t end up in the criminal justice system, or if they did, it was at much lower rates,” said Bob Haennicke, associate vice president of Catholic Charities. “That helps get people interested in maybe funding it.”

The call center was launched in 2006 as a central place for people facing the possibility of homelessness to seek help. Staff interview callers to determine eligibility for help and refer them to one of several agencies — including Catholic Charities itself — that can disburse state homelessness prevention funds.

The center usually received between 70,000 and 75,000 calls a year, according to call center director Wendy Avila. This year, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the center is on pace to receive more than 100,000 calls.

Because there are not enough resources for every caller to get help, and because homeless shelters in Chicago contribute to a common database, researchers were able to compare those who received funding to those who did not, explained Jim Sullivan, one of the cofounders of the LEO.

“One of the sad parts of this process is that there isn’t always money available,” Sullivan said in an interview on the Voice of Catholic Charities radio show. “As unfortunate as that is, that does create an opportunity to learn about the effectiveness of the program. In conversations with leadership, we learned that there is excess demand, and who gets funding and who doesn’t is essentially random.”

One of the findings that surprised Catholic Charities officials was that people with the lowest incomes had the best results, Haennicke said.

“Everybody had good outcomes, but the lowest income people had the best outcomes,” he said. “People might have thought it would be people who had higher incomes who just needed a little help would do better.”

Part of the difference, Sullivan said, might be that people with higher incomes who qualified for help would be more likely to find other resources if they did not receive assistance, meaning the difference between those who received assistance and those who didn’t would not be as great.

Such research has only become possible in the past 10 to 15 years because of more widely available data, such as the data set created by homeless shelter operators that LEO used for this study, Sullivan said. It takes the existence of such datasets and the expertise of people like the researchers at LEO to come up with answers to questions about how best to help people.

“In LEO, in every project that we launch, we consider what data are available that we can use to understand the impact of the program,” Sullivan said.

Agencies also have to fight a mindset that non-profits should spend every available penny on direct client service instead of investing in research, he said, an idea that would never fly in the business world.

“It’s been extremely valuable to the call center,” Avila said, noting that more money was earmarked for homelessness prevention and the amount available to each family was increased after the study came out. “We did a follow up with the clients and we found that 67 percent of the callers were stably housed two years later because of the assistance they received. We started with $2,500 per household and now go up to $5,000. I think that being able to say we know what we are doing is working is important.”

The research in Chicago has led to related research elsewhere, Sullivan said, including a study of a similar program in Santa Clara, California.

To be eligible for help from the programs administered by Catholic Charities in Cook County, people must be able to demonstrate an expectation of future income so that they’re not in the same position a month later, Sullivan said. Maybe they have applied for a government assistance program, or have been hired for a job they haven’t started yet. Maybe they have a job but emergency expenses left them unable to pay rent for a month.

The California program has no future income requirement for eligibility, and researchers at LEO want to find out if it makes a difference to outcomes.

At the same time, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago is mounting another study, this one to find out if a financial boost over and above the homelessness prevention funds helps put families on the path to stability.

“What it does is, if the original funds pay your rent for this month, we want to see if enough money to give you a cushion for next month too helps,” Haennicke said.


  • catholic charities
  • homelessness

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