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Two California researchers aim to gain real-time insight into homelessness by using an unexpected resource found among homeless people: smartphones.

Benjamin Henwood, an associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California, and Randall Kuhn, a professor in UCLA’s Department of Community Health Sciences, have begun a research project that examines a sample of homeless people in Los Angeles County. on a monthly basis through their phones.

To dig deeper than previous general surveys have, the survey contains questions that address individual preferences regarding permanent residency, community shelters, and the impact of law enforcement.

Larry Posey works at MacArthur Park to share information about the PATHS study.PATHWAYS / Amy Stein

“Asking what people are looking for in their preferences is useful because there’s not a lot of data on it, and it dispels a lot of myths about people,” Henwood said.

The effort comes as homelessness remains a major problem in many parts of the US, particularly on the West Coast. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly 30% of people experiencing homelessness are in California, with many living in the Los Angeles area.

And while billions of dollars are spent each year on homelessness programs, there can be a lack of accurate and up-to-date data about what homeless people are experiencing and where their priorities lie.

“What are the specific burdens and what can we alleviate?” Kuhn said. “We have no idea how to do it.”

Thus, Henwood and Kuhn developed PATHS, which abbreviates the Periodic Assessment of Housing, Homelessness, and Health Trajectories. The first results, which surveyed 298 homeless people, were published in October.

A no camping sign is posted next to a homeless encampment in Hollenbeck Park.
A no camping sign is posted next to a homeless encampment in Hollenbeck Park.Amy Stein / USC/UCLA

Once a month, a growing number of PATHS participants in Los Angeles County are sent a link to a 15-minute survey. Upon completion, they receive an electronic gift card. While the survey process is simple, it does require a smartphone, which 56% of Los Angeles County’s homeless population owns, according to Henwood’s 2017 survey.

PATHS is not the only technology-based outreach in the homeless field, but few programs are so aggressively focused on understanding people on their individual terms, especially in an area like Los Angeles County that is systematically addressing homelessness.

For example, in addition to asking respondents how many days they last stayed in temporary housing, the survey also asks how likely they are to even consider the temporary housing option. Also, a question focusing on the last time someone was removed from a tent camp for disobeying a city ordinance could be followed by a question asking whether participants felt they understood the local camping laws that policed ​​them with.

“When you do a study like this and actually talk to people versus numbers, it really humanizes the issue,” 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 address these questions and challenge some of the common beliefs surrounding homelessness.

For the PATHS study, recruiters share information with participants via a postcard and directly through a web-based interface.
For the PATHS study, recruiters share information with participants via a postcard and directly through a web-based interface.Amy Stein / UCLA / USC

One of those myths is that homelessness is a choice people make and actively choose to maintain. The PATHS study found that 90% of participants would be interested in some type of temporary or permanent housing.

One-third of respondents said they were currently on the housing waiting list, while another third reported no involvement.

Another startling finding of the study was that only a quarter of those surveyed were aware of Los Angeles County’s encampment laws, which have been used to crack down on homeless people living in tents.

“If you’re going to monitor the population, they should probably be aware of the laws that apply,” Henwood said. “What’s being proposed is not housing that’s meant to be permanent, it’s not really meant to get someone on their feet,” he said.

PATHS also keeps individual records of people over a period of time. This means a researcher can pull up a person’s file in seconds and see their previous monthly survey results, providing information about their preferences over time, encounters with the police or trends in their physical and mental well-being, the professors say. rare in homelessness research.

“That’s incredibly valuable information.” We want to spend money on things that make an impact, and being able to see the whole picture on a case-by-case basis is the most important thing,” said Steve Berg, chief policy officer of the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Henwood and Kuhn said case managers — those who work with people and families experiencing homelessness — do an exceptional job of keeping track of people in their case records, but not as thoroughly and consistently as PATHS could.

“There needs to be a system that can more easily track a person and allow them to self-check, self-assess and get healthy, and phones provide an amazing conduit for that,” Kuhn said.

For now, the monthly data collected by PATHS doesn’t directly influence or inform policy decisions, but researchers say they hope it can one day inform 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, not where we preliminarily think it should,” Kuhn said.

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


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