Is it OK to do randomized experiments on people? NYC edition

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 from the program 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.

From Wednesday's New York Times.

It’s interesting to watch the debate over the ethics of randomized control trials arrive at our own shores, and to see New Yorkers up in arms over homeless people being treated “lab rats" or “guinea pigs.”

I understand why these experiments make the public uncomfortable, but to me the important fact is that the organization profiled in this article does not have enough funds to give support to everyone who applies, and also faces future funding cuts (according to the reporter). If this experiment is just a different, more deliberate way of deciding who gets support and who doesn't, AND if we can learn something useful about the effectiveness of different methods for keeping people off the streets, then I don't see it as unethical.