A Laboratory for the Real World

A chance meeting. A bold vision. United in mission. Motivated by faith.

Over coffee at the Morris Inn on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, a priest with a bold vision to reduce poverty in America, Fr. Larry Snyder, former President of Catholic Charities USA and two amazing economics faculty members – Professor William Evans (an academic who left a major mid-Atlantic university to bring his faith and academic work closer together) and Professor James Sullivan (an undergraduate alumni of University of Notre Dame who returned to join the faculty focusing on rigorous evaluation of anti-poverty programs) met to discuss how academics and practitioners might come together to ensure that the programs that serve those living in poverty afford the best possible outcomes for the people they are intended to serve. This meeting marked the beginning of a journey that resulted in the founding of the Lab that at its very core offers the promise of a brighter future for those who live in poverty in America.

Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, co-recipient in 1985 of Independent Sector’s first John W. Gardner Leadership Award, was once asked how to pray. Eschewing the more traditional 73-word “Our Father,” he suggested, simply: “Come Holy Spirit.” This story speaks to both the religious impulse and the results-oriented rigor of Notre Dame, the university he led for 35 years. And today, a combination of hands-on human service work and brainy quantitative methods (supported by the latest in big data) define the university’s Wilson Sheehan Lab for Economic Opportunities, or LEO for short.

LEO was founded in 2012 by Bill Evans and Jim Sullivan with the goal of matching top researchers with innovative social service agencies. In tandem, they conduct impact evaluations that identify effective and scalable programs that help people move permanently out of poverty. LEO is based at Notre Dame’s campus in South Bend, Indiana. However, LEO is building a national network of faculty members who are experts in social policy design and evaluation. LEO is named for the Wilson Sheehan Foundation, which endowed the Lab in 2014.

LEO’s anchor partner is (IS member) Catholic Charities USA – a national network of more than 160 local social service agencies serving more than 8 million struggling Americans each year. LEO also works with other leading nonprofits as well as city, state, and federal governments, sharing results to shape policies, programs, and practices. “Working with local agencies on LEO projects has been an amazing experience,” said LEO co-founder Bill Evans. “Our hope is that the partnership of their innovative ideas and our academic methods can identify programs that provide families in need with a brighter future.”

LEO has a sharp eye out for opportunities to tackle big problems alongside local champions and to measure and replicate their success. A paramount example: homelessness prevention. LEO estimates that people without shelter nationwide number 2.1 million, nearly as many as reside in the entire city of Chicago (2.7 million). Another 7.4 million people (approaching the number of people living in New York City’s five boroughs, 8.4 million) are, according to LEO, “doubled up” with family or friends for economic reasons. Countless others are at risk.

What can be done to help this vulnerable population? The Homelessness Prevention Call Center (HPCC) operated by Catholic Charities Chicago came to LEO’s attention for its good work providing temporary financial assistance to people at risk of becoming homeless. It is not common knowledge, but call centers like this one are actually accessible to more than 90 percent of Americans – and they process a whopping 15 million calls each year. This one-time assistance helps callers avoid eviction, pay the rent, pay the utilities, i.e. remain housed and avoid homelessness. But here’s what’s happening over and above this good work thanks to LEO’s participation: the mountain of data generated and stored by this benevolent social service system has the potential to inform the futures of similar initiatives coast-to-coast. Using data the HPCC was already collecting, LEO was able to measure the impact of receiving funds on those at risk of homelessness.

They found that, in fact, those at risk of homelessness who receive funds through a call to the HPCC are 60 percent less likely to become homeless at 6 and 12 months after they receive funds. LEO is continuing to measure the impact of this program on other outcomes for recipients such as housing stability, crime, and health care usage. This study is the first in its kind to examine the impact of temporary financial assistance on homelessness, and thus will inform not only Catholic Charities Chicago, but other call centers and homelessness prevention programs nationally.

For more information about LEO and its programs, please visit www.leo.nd.edu.

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