Published March 11, 2011
The federal government's multi-agency approach to help the homeless is often confused, according to a recently released report that catalogues the hundreds of different ways the government squanders taxes through waste, overlap, fragmentation and bureaucracy.
The Government Accountability Office report found that in 2009, federal agencies spent about $2.9 billion on more than 20 programs that targeted homelessness. If that money were to be targeted toward the building of homes, at say, $200,000 per home, it could theoretically produce 145,000 houses.
"Take that money directly and give them sort of a voucher so they can go get housing on their own, or get some mental health benefits," Brian Darling, director of government studies at the Heritage Foundation suggested. "But the way it is now when you have all of these different government agencies administering the same program, you have government waste."
But some advocates for the homeless argue that suggestion ignores the complexity of the problem. They say that homelessness incorporates so many socio-pathologies, economic hardships, and other nuanced circumstances -- from mental illness to abuse, to discharged soldiers returning from war who can't find jobs -- that a variety of overlapping federal programs and services are precisely what's needed.
"The the fact that we have different federal agencies doing different programs is actually a decision the Congress made pretty intentionally with the idea that the program should stay within their area of expertise," insisted Steve Berg from the Alliance to End Homelessness.
To its credit, the federal government has taken some steps to improve coordination of homeless programs.
Last July, it created the U.S. Inter-Agency Council on Homelessness (USICH) that is comprised of 19 agencies, including the Departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services. It is designed to better focus the services of homeless programs.
But still lacking, the GAO report found, is a single program to collect timely data on the full extent and nature of homelessness.
"The plan acknowledges that a common data standard... would facilitate greater understanding and simplify local data management," the report reads.
In a sign that the government is intent on reducing bureaucratic inefficiencies, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced last December that it would participate in the government's "Homeless Information Management Systems," a database designed to more effectively identify and deliver assistance to homeless people.
Rep. Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, believes these kinds of efficiencies outlined in the GAO report can reap huge rewards for taxpayers.
"We can save at least a hundred billion dollars without losing one service to or for the American people," the California Republican told Fox News.
But the next step is a more difficult one. While the GAO has identified the problems, it is now up to Congress to make the tough choices.
"The next phase is for Congress to actually do something," Darling said. "Stop talking about it, stop jaw-boning the issue, draft legislation, pass it in the House and make the Senate vote on it."