Two researchers aim to better understand L.A.’s homelessness crisis with smartphone surveys


Two California researchers aim to use a unexpected resource found. Among homeless people to understand homelessness in real-time: smartphones.

Benjamin Henwood, associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California . And Randall Kuhn, a professor in. UCLA’s Department of Community . Health Sciences, initiated a research project that surveyed a sample. Of homeless people in Los Angeles County. on a monthly basis through their phone.

Digging deeper than previous typical studies. The survey included questions focused on individual preferences. About permanent housing, community shelter and exposure to law enforcement.
Asking people. What they’re looking for in . Their preferences is helpful because there’s not great data. and it dispels a lot of myths about people,” Henwood said.

The efforts come as homelessness remains a major problem in many parts of the . United States, particularly on the West Coast According to . The US Department of Housing and Urban Development. About 30% of people experiencing homelessness in California, many of whom. live in Los Angeles County.

And while billions of dollars are spent each year on homeless-related programs . There can be a lack of accurate and updated data about what homeless people . Are experiencing and where their priorities lie.

“What is the specific burden and what can we ease?” Kuhn said. “We have no idea how to deal with it.”

So Henwood and Kuhn created PATHS, short for the Periodic Assessment of Housing. Homelessness, and Health Study. The first results, which surveyed 298 homeless people, were published in October.
Once a month, a growing number of PATHS participants in Los Angeles County are texted . A link to a 15-minute survey. Upon completion they receive an electronic gift card. Although the survey process is simple, it requires a smartphone, which 56% of Los. Angeles County’s nonresident population has, according to a 2017 survey conducted by Henwood.

PATHS isn’t the only . Technology-based outreach to the homeless field, but few programs . Focus so on understanding people on personal terms. Especially in an area like Los Angeles County that deals with homelessness.

For example, besides to asking survey . Participants how many days they last stayed in temporary housing. The survey also asks how likely they are to accept a temporary housing option. Besides, a question focused on . The last time someone was removed from a tent encampment for failing to. Obey a city ordinance could be followed by a question asking. Whether participants believed they understood the local encampment laws that policed them.

“When you do a study like this and you actually talk to people versus looking at numbers. It humanizes the problem,” said Donald Whitehead. Who has experienced homelessness himself and is now executive . Director of the nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless.

With the data collected so far. PATHS appears to be addressing these questions and contradicting some . Held beliefs surrounding the homeless.

One of these myths is that . The experience of homelessness is a choice that people make and choose to maintain. The PATHS survey found that 90% of participants. Would be interested in some form of temporary or permanent housing.
One-third of respondents . Said they were currently on a waiting list for housing while another. Third reported no involvement with the campaign.

Another interesting finding from . the study was that only a quarter of survey takers felt aware of . Los Angeles County’s camping laws, which have been used to . Crack down on non-residents living in tents.

“If you’re going to be policing a population, they need to be aware of the laws that apply,” Henwood said. “What’s being offered is not housing intended to be permanent. It’s not something that’s designed to help someone get back on their feet,” he said.

PATHS also keeps personal records of people over a period of time. This means that, within seconds, a researcher can pull up a person’s file and see. Their previous monthly survey results. Providing intel on their preferences over time. Encounters with the police, or trends in their physical and . Mental well-being, among other things. The professors said. Homelessness is rare in research.

“This is valuable information.” We want to spend money on things that have an impact, and the most important thing is to look at . The whole picture on a case-by-case basis,” said Steve Berg, chief policy officer of the. National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Henwood and Kuhn said case managers — . Who work with individuals and families. Experiencing homelessness — do an exceptional job of tracking people in . heir case notes, but not as and as PATHS.

“There needs to be a system that can more keep track of individuals and their whereabouts

It can more track individuals and allow. Them to check in, self-assess and access health themselves. and phones provide an amazing conduit for that,” Kuhn said.

So far, the monthly data collected by. PATHS doesn’t have a direct impact or inform policy decisions. But researchers say they hope it can one day educate thinking about how to help homeless people.

“I hope that we’ve designed. It so that the data will take us where we need to go instead of where we preconceived that we need to,” Kuhn said.

A second round of surveys will be collected in January with an increased sample size and. The addition of personalized questions focusing on negative police encounters.


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