Two California researchers hope to gain a real-time understanding of homelessness by utilising an unexpected resource found among the homeless: smartphones.
Benjamin Henwood, an associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California, and Randall Kuhn, a professor in the department of community health sciences at UCLA, have launched a research programme that uses smartphones to survey a sample of homeless people in Los Angeles County on a monthly basis.
In order to go deeper than previous studies, the survey includes questions about individual preferences for permanent housing, community shelters, and exposure to law enforcement.
“Asking about what people want in their preferences is useful because there isn’t a lot of data on that, and it debunks a lot of myths about people,” Henwood said.
The efforts come as homelessness remains a major issue in many parts of the United States, particularly on the West Coast. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly 30% of people experiencing homelessness live in California, with many of them residing in Los Angeles County.
While billions of dollars are spent on homelessness-related programmes each year, there may be a lack of accurate and up-to-date data on what unhoused people are experiencing and where their priorities lie.
“What are the specific burdens, and how can we reduce them?” Kuhn stated. “We have no idea how to deal with that.”
PATHS, which stands for Periodic Assessment of Trajectories of Housing, Homelessness, and Health Study, was created by Henwood and Kuhn. The first results, based on a survey of 298 unhoused people, were released in October.
A growing number of PATHS participants in Los Angeles County are texted a link to a 15-minute survey once a month. They will receive an electronic gift card upon completion. Although the survey process is simple, it does necessitate the use of a smartphone, which 56% of the unhoused population in Los Angeles County owns, according to a Henwood study conducted in 2017.
PATHS isn’t the only technology-based outreach programme in the unhoused field, but few programmes are as aggressively focused on understanding people on an individual level, especially in a county like Los Angeles that deals with homelessness on a systemic level.
For example, the survey asks survey participants not only how long it has been since they have stayed in temporary housing, but also how likely they are to accept a temporary housing option. A question about the last time someone was removed from a tent encampment for failing to obey a city ordinance, for example, could be followed by a question about whether participants believe they understand the local encampment laws that police them.
“When you do a study like this and actually talk to people rather than just looking at numbers, it really humanises the issue,” said Donald Whitehead, who was homeless as a child and is now the executive director of the nonprofit National Coalition for the Homeless.
PATHS appears to be addressing these questions and contradicting some commonly held beliefs about the unhoused based on the data collected thus far.
One of these myths is that being homeless is a choice that people actively choose to maintain. According to the PATHS study, 90% of participants would be interested in temporary or permanent housing.
One-third of those polled said they are currently on a housing waiting list, while another third said they have had no involvement with outreach at all.
Another startling finding from the study was that only a quarter of survey respondents were aware of Los Angeles County’s camping laws, which have been used to crack down on homeless people living in tents.
“If you’re going to police a population, they should probably be aware of the laws that are being enforced,” Henwood explained. “What’s being offered is not intended to be permanent housing; it’s not really designed to help someone get back on their feet,” he explained.
PATHS also maintains individual records on people over time. This means that a researcher can pull up one person’s file and see their previous monthly survey results in seconds, providing information about their preferences over time, encounters with police, or the trend of their physical and mental well-being, which the professors say is uncommon in homelessness research.
“It’s incredibly valuable information.” “We want to spend money on things that have an impact, and being able to see the entire picture on a case-by-case basis is the most important thing,” said Steve Berg, chief policy officer at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.
According to Henwood and Kuhn, case managers — those who work with homeless people and families — do an excellent job of keeping track of people in their case notes, but not as thoroughly and consistently as PATHS.
“There has to be a system that can more easily keep track of the person and let them check in, self-assess, and access health on their own,” Kuhn said.
As of now, the monthly data collected by PATHS has no direct implications or informs policy decisions, but the researchers say they hope it will someday educate people on how to help the homeless.
“I hope we’ve designed this in such a way that the data takes us where we need to go rather than where we think we need to go in advance,” Kuhn said.
The second round of surveys, with a larger sample size and personalised questions about negative police encounters, will be collected in January.