NEW YORK — It has long been the standard practice in medical testing: Give drug treatment to one group while another, the control group, goes without.
Now, New York City is applying the same methodology to assess one of its programs to prevent homelessness. Half of the test subjects — people who are behind on rent and in danger of being evicted — are being denied assistance for two years, with researchers tracking them to see if they end up homeless.
The city’s Department of Homeless Services said the study was necessary to determine whether the $23 million program, called Homebase, helped the people for whom it was intended.
Homebase, begun in 2004, offers job training, counseling services and emergency money to help people stay in their homes.
But some public officials and legal aid groups have denounced the study as unethical and cruel, and have called on the city to stop the study and to grant help to all the test subjects who had been denied assistance.
“They should immediately stop this experiment,” said the Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer. “The city shouldn’t be making guinea pigs out of its most vulnerable.”
As controversial as the experiment has become, New York City is among a number of governments, philanthropies and research groups turning to so-called randomized controlled trials to evaluate social welfare programs.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development recently started an 18-month study in 10 cities and counties to track up to 3,000 families who land in homeless shelters. Families will be randomly assigned to programs that put them in homes, give them housing subsidies or keep them in shelters. The goal, a HUD spokesman, Brian Sullivan, said, is to find out which approach most effectively ushered people into permanent homes.
Such trials, while not new, are becoming especially popular in developing countries. In India, for example, researchers using a controlled trial found that installing cameras in classrooms reduced teacher absenteeism at rural schools. Children given deworming treatment in Kenya ended up having better attendance at school and growing taller.
“It’s a very effective way to find out what works and what doesn’t,” said Esther Duflo, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has advanced the testing of social programs in the third world. “Everybody, every country, has a limited budget and wants to find out what programs are effective.”
The New York study involves monitoring 400 households that sought Homebase help between June and August. Two hundred were given the program’s services, and 200 were not. Those denied help by Homebase were given the names of other agencies from which they could seek assistance. People denied assistance were directed to HRA Job Centers, Housing Court Answers and the Legal Aid Society, among other agencies.
Advocates for the homeless said they were puzzled about why the trial was necessary, since the city proclaimed the Homebase program as “highly successful” in the September 2010 Mayor’s Management Report, saying that more than 90 percent of families that received help from Homebase did not end up in homeless shelters. One critic of the trial, Councilwoman Annabel Palma, is holding a General Welfare Committee hearing about the program Thursday.
“I don’t think homeless people in our time, or in any time, should be treated like lab rats,” Palma said.
But Seth Diamond, commissioner of the Homeless Services Department, said that just because 90 percent of the families helped by Homebase stayed out of shelters did not mean it was Homebase that kept families in their homes. People who knew to seek out Homebase might be resourceful to begin with, he said, and especially adept at patching together housing help. The department, Diamond added, had to cut $20 million from its budget in November, and federal stimulus money for Homebase will end in July 2012.
“This is about putting emotions aside,” he said. “When you’re making decisions about millions of dollars and thousands of people’s lives, you have to do this on data, and that is what this about.”