Mobile phones give researchers a deeper look into living homeless in Los Angeles

When USC researchers began documenting the impact of the digital divide on the homeless, they made an unexpected discovery: 94% of their survey respondents owned a cell phone.

Based on this knowledge, a crosstown team from USC and UCLA—brought together by a shared social mission—conducted a novel survey of Los Angeles’ homeless population.

The researchers are offering $10 (RM47) gift cards as an incentive and asking participants to log into a mobile app monthly to report where they are, how they are feeling, what kind of help they are getting received and how they are affected by policies such as the city’s newly enacted anti-camping ordinance.

Their goal is to fill what they describe as an “almost complete lack of comprehensive, high-quality evidence of the well-being, needs, or desires of the homeless community” that permeates “every phase of the looming LA homelessness crisis — and is growing.” reactive response of policy makers”.

A preliminary report released Wednesday by USC’s Homeless Policy Research Institute gives a qualified assessment of their success. In it, they say their phone sample closely matches known demographics of the homeless population, indicating it may provide reliable insight into the hidden dynamics of homelessness and how public policies affect it.

But much more work needs to be done before they can refine policy-relevant information, e.g. B. where people go after being evacuated from an enforcement zone.

“In a way, at this point it’s just a more general survey of what people know about these camping laws and whether they think they’ll be affected,” said co-author Benjamin Henwood, a professor at the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social of USC work.

Still, Under Threat: Surveying Unhoused Angelenos in the Era of Camping Enforcement offers new insights into how LA’s revised anti-camping ordinance and laws in other cities are being viewed on the street. Just under a quarter of homeless people feel informed about the laws, 43% said they think they will be forced to move and another 30% had no opinion.

Almost 20% said they had been in contact with the police in the last 30 days and 7% said they were summoned for staying on the street.

The report paints a differentiated picture of the street population. While all interviewees were recruited on the street, many indicated that they switch back and forth between protected and unprotected. About 16% reported living in shelters and 8% reported being housed, mainly through duplication. Almost a third said they live in vehicles.

Attitudes towards shelters were consistent with findings from other studies, including that a high percentage of homeless people would accept housing offers, but the type of shelter matters. Less than 20% said they would go to an emergency shelter where people sleep in the same large room. Privacy, security, cleanliness, curfews and conflicts with staff were the main objections.

Respondents also had “exceptionally poorer physical and mental health outcomes” than the adult population of Los Angeles County. Half reported symptoms of anxiety and slightly fewer reported depression. 49% rated their health as fair or poor, compared to 17% across the county. Women were more likely than men to describe their health as fair or poor, and 63% reported mental distress, compared to 39% of men.

Smoking was more than double the prevalence among the homeless, and Covid-19 vaccination coverage was less than half the county average.

Three quarters reported experiences of food insecurity compared to 15% in the county.

What the report doesn’t yet do is track those stats by time and location. It summarizes only the initial survey, conducted by 411 participants, and a month-long follow-up survey, conducted by 258. A richer picture will come from the monthly follow-up surveys, which will continue as more respondents are recruited.

“Our ability, at this sample size, to say, accurately associating an individual’s presence specifically in an enforcement zone with a range of outcomes is going to be complicated,” said co-author Randall Kuhn, a professor in the Fielding School of Public Health UCLA. “Doubling the sample size will help.”

Enrolling participants and keeping them even more engaged has proven difficult, Kuhn said. They learn as they go. Raising the incentive from the original US$5 (RM24) to US$10 (RM48) helped.

Their funding, provided by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, has been extended and they will resume recruitment next year.

After experimenting with different approaches, they plan to adopt the survey of 5,000 homeless people that is conducted each year as part of the point-in-time census. After the survey questions are asked, the interviewers give each participant a suggestion to sign up for the mobile app’s survey program.

“We’ve learned a lot,” said Kuhn. “The best approach is that you spend 15 minutes on the demo survey and build some relationship.”

The cellphone survey, officially the Periodic Assessment of Trajectories of Housing, Homelessness and Health Study or (PATHS), is part of a growing body of academic and nonprofit work aimed at addressing the inadequacies of the biennial grand census mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but is held annually in many locations, including Los Angeles.

“Using the point-in-time count is like taking a picture with an early model camera, where the image becomes distorted as the subject moves,” says a review on the website of Built For Zero, a homeless charity nonprofit community solutions. Articulating a common complaint about the census. “Homelessness is always in flux and the image takes time to develop, in this case many months. The result is a blurred image of the past.”

Built For Zero encourages communities to create “by name” lists, combining information compiled by field workers with data from service providers outside of the HUD-mandated system, and reporting that information to the public once collected.

That would be a challenge for such a large and dispersed homeless population as Los Angeles. A disturbing finding from the mobile phone survey was that 33% of respondents said they had no contact with outreach staff.

Contrary to some critics of the annual census, Kuhn and Henwood are not attempting to replace them. Both are working on it and see it as an essential part of what Kuhn calls the “Homeless Data Ecosystem”.

“I think the PIT count is wonderful,” said Kuhn. “For me, the PIT number is another data point in a year-long story.”

“It’s a community commitment just like anything else,” Henwood said. “And that has value.”

They hope to add value, particularly through timeliness.

“We’re hoping to get to the place where we can essentially release the data as soon as we get it,” Kuhn said.

They also deepen the checkbox questions that are asked year after year in the demographic survey.

“Often the respondent would say, ‘I wish you would ask me more interesting questions,'” Kuhn said. “In many encounters, a person will say, ‘Would you ask me a question about how I feel about things?'”

The mobile survey, on the other hand, collects qualitative responses.

“The amount of bullying, psychological and emotional abuse I’ve been subjected to from other clients… and downright abusive security guards,” one black woman exclaimed about her accommodation. “These places mess you up mentally.”

“Rules take precedence over human needs,” said one white man who lives outdoors of his experience with shelters.

Of all the obstacles the researchers face, the rivalry between the cities is not one of them.

“I’m not from the area so this whole rivalry thing wasn’t a thing,” Henwood said.

Kuhn, with degrees from UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania, and Henwood, who received degrees from Swarthmore and New York University, were brought together by their personal desire to do something about homelessness.

“It’s hard work and I think we both have other projects that are better funded,” Kuhn said. “But we love this work.” -Los Angeles Times/Tribune News Service