Homelessness across the US is a complex issue, with services often provided by networks of both government and nonprofit providers. In new research, Saerim Kim and Andrew Sullivan find that increasing the number of government and nonprofit providers together – and only together – is linked to lower rates of homelessness. Such collaborations are more effective at decreasing homelessness as they help overcome capacity limitations and inequitable service provision.
In 2022, over 580,000 people in America were experiencing homelessness, with large variation across the 50 US-states; from a rate of 44 per 100,000 in California to 7.8 in North Dakota. Factors beyond homeless service providers’ control primarily determine rates of homelessness in communities: environmental conditions like housing costs and the availability of affordable housing; resources for services; political support from local leaders.
Given this lack of control, communities often rely on bringing together diverse actors and organizations across sectors, levels of government, and jurisdictions to address homelessness. These collaborations have the potential to moderate these factors out of their control and enhance community-level performance by making use of each actor’s strengths. In forming their collaborative networks, communities often consider which mix of services best meets their multitude of community goals, such as providing services through government, nonprofit, or both sectors.
In studying over all 380 homeless-service jurisdictions across the country from 2012-2020, we find that providing services through both government and nonprofit sectors simultaneously is linked with less homelessness in a community. While government service providers can often focus on “typical” cases of homelessness and services, nonprofits can fill the gap left behind and offer different expertise. Together, they can create a system of support helping to alleviate homelessness, navigating the complex system.
However, we found the relationship less clear for efficiency, equity, and homelessness in neighboring communities, muddying the relationship between government-nonprofit collaboration and performance.
Effectiveness and collaboration: a winning combination
Government-nonprofit collaboration is successful in achieving positive results in reducing homelessness. Homeless services operate under the system known as Continuums of Care (CoCs), where government entities and nonprofits jointly provide shelter and housing to people experiencing homelessness. However, CoCs have discretion in which sector provides services, although little research has studied the effect on performance.
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Service delivery through both sectors leads to increased effectiveness primarily due to improved service quality. Government-nonprofit collaboration helps mitigate challenges such as capacity limitations and inequitable service provision, ultimately leading to reduced homelessness within the CoC. Importantly, increasing providers in only one sector (either governments or nonprofits) can exacerbate homelessness, highlighting the importance of joint government-nonprofit service delivery to solve homelessness.
Figure 1 shows the expected change in homelessness depending on the increase in government and nonprofit providers. A 20 percent increase in government or nonprofit providers is linked to about 2.5 percent and 5 percent more homelessness, respectively.
Instead, increasing both sectors simultaneously lessen this relationship and potentially decreases homelessness depending on the size of the increase. If both sectors increase by 20 percent (about the average rate if both increased), we’d expect homelessness to decrease by about 6 percent.
Figure 1 – Predicted Change in Homelessness
Source: Kim, S. & Sullivan, A. (2023). Connecting the Composition of Collaborative Governance Structure to Community-Level Performance in Homeless Services. Public Administration Review.
Social efficiency and collaboration: It’s not migration
To end homelessness as a society, communities must consider how their own actions affect other communities. Pushing people experiencing homelessness to nearby communities could help in the short term, but this approach only makes the problem worse for the nearby communities and does nothing to help the people experiencing homelessness. However, we found the decrease in homelessness was not simply from moving people across CoCs, finding no relationship between government-nonprofit collaboration in one CoC and homelessness in neighboring CoCs homelessness.
Nonprofits as social rights guardians: promoters of efficiency and service diversity
Contrary to effectiveness, increasing the number of nonprofits is linked with greater internal efficiency, potentially due to providing more services at the same cost. Additionally, nonprofits contribute to service diversity, offering a range of services to meet varying demands. This can result from nonprofits’ being positioned as social rights guardians. However, when combined with government service delivery, we did not find any improvements in internal efficiency and service diversity, suggesting that achieving these aspects of performance might be more attainable when nonprofits operate independently.
A step towards a comprehensive understanding of collaborative networks
Linking local service providers in both public and nonprofit sectors to effectiveness, internal efficiency, social efficiency, and service diversity is essential for future theoretical developments, a more nuanced understanding of government-nonprofit service delivery and solving social problems. In this turbulent environment where government and nonprofit sectors may advocate for different values in the local community, new theories and empirical findings of government-nonprofit service delivery may be required. The policy and management implications of studying government-nonprofit service delivery and community-level performance can have a profound impact at multiple levels of governments as communities increasingly adopts a collaborative system that involves multiple actors in addressing complex problems.
Moving forward, future research has ample opportunities to advance our understanding of the role of nonprofits in collaborative service delivery. The relationship between government-nonprofit service delivery and performance can be effectively studied in situations where there is significant philanthropic support for marginalized communities, such as in homelessness. The next step is to apply the findings and theoretical insights from this research to different geographical and policy contexts, exploring composition in areas beyond human services. Additionally, more in-depth qualitative or organizational-level research can shed further light on the mechanisms behind why government-nonprofit service delivery improves only certain dimensions of performance. Our research lays the groundwork by examining the relationship between government-nonprofit service delivery and various aspects of performance in public service provision.
- This article is based on the paper “Connecting the Composition of Collaborative Governance Structure to Community-Level Performance in Homeless Services” published in Public Administration Review.
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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