Council Members Call Homeless Experiment Unethical

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Some city council members are expressing outrage at a homeless prevention study that is denying certain families services.

Four hundred families were enrolled in the experiment between June and September. Half were served as normal. But the other half were put in a control group that isn't being allowed to access the city's homeless prevention program called Home Base for two years. Instead,the families were given a list of other organizations that assist the poor.

All of the families being tracked to determine how many end up in shelter, get jobs or apply for public benefits. The city has often touted its homeless prevention program as a success and has said that 90 percent of the families that use the program don't end up in shelters. But Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond says the current data doesn't answer the most critical question, "which is, whether people would have accessed a shelter but for the Home Base Services."

The city says the experiment was voluntary but, according to a consent form, if families didn't agree to take part in the experiment, then they, like the control group, would be denied services for two years.

At a hearing Thursday, Brooklyn City Councilmember Stephen Levin told researcher Dr. Howard Ralston that families really didn't have a choice at all. "It was voluntary, yeah, but you wouldn't receive Home Base services if you didn't sign it, so of course you're going to sign it," Levin said. 

Rolston works for ABT Associates, a research and consulting firm, and said that performing the experiment any other way would have harmed the integrity of the study. The study is costing the city roughly $500,000.

The families coming to the city's homeless prevention program are typically in crisis situations and close to losing their homes. Among other things, the program mediates disputes with landlords, offers rental assistance, helps clients find jobs and assists them with applying for public benefits. It costs $20 million a year and serves about 7,000 households.

When asked whether any of the families had ended up homeless yet, Diamond said it was too early to tell.