Two researchers aim to better understand Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis through smartphone surveys

Two California researchers aim to gain a real-time understanding of homelessness using a perhaps unexpected resource found among unhoused people: smartphones.

Benjamin Henwood, a professor in the Susan Durack-Peck School of Social Work at USC, and Randall Kuhn, a professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at UCLA, began a research program surveying a sample of homeless people in Los Angeles. Angeles County on a monthly basis through their phones.

Looking to go deeper than general studies have gone before, the survey contains questions that focus on individual preferences related to permanent housing, community shelters, and exposure to law enforcement.

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

“Asking what people are looking for in their preferences is helpful because there isn’t big data on that, and it debunks a lot of myths about people,” Henwood said.

The effort comes because homelessness remains a major problem in many parts of the United States, most notably on the West Coast. Nearly 30% of people experiencing homelessness are in California, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, and many live in Los Angeles County.

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

“What are the specific burdens and what can we ease?” Cohn said. “We have no idea how to handle that.”

So Henwood and Kuhn developed PATHS, an acronym for Periodic Assessment of Trajectories of Housing, Homelessness, and Health Study. The first results, which included 298 unhoused subjects, were published in October.

No camping sign next to a homeless camp in Hollenbeck Park.
No camping sign next to a homeless camp in Hollenbeck Park.Amy Stein/USC/UCLA

Once a month, a link to a 15-minute survey is sent to a growing number of PATHS respondents in Los Angeles County. Upon completion, they receive an e-gift card. While the survey process is simple, it does require a smartphone, which 56% of uninhabited Los Angeles County residents have, according to a 2017 study by Henwood.

PATHS isn’t the only technology-based outreach in the homeless field, but few programs focus so strongly on understanding people from an individual perspective, especially in an area like Los Angeles County that deals so systematically with homelessness.

For example, in addition to asking survey participants how many days since they last stayed in temporary housing, the survey also asks how likely they are to even accept the temporary housing option. Also, a question focusing on the last time someone was removed from a tent camp for failing to comply with a city law might be followed by a question asking if the participants believed they understood the local camp laws that govern them.

“When you do a study like this and actually talk to people versus just looking at the numbers, it really humanizes the issue,” said Donald Whitehead, who has experienced homelessness himself and is now executive director of the nonprofit National Homeless Coalition.

With the data collected so far, PATHS appears to address these questions and challenge some commonly held beliefs about non-drugs.

Recruiters in the PATHS study share information with participants via postcard and directly into a web-based interface.
Recruiters in the PATHS study share information with participants via postcard and directly into a web-based interface.Amy Stein/UCLA/University of Southern California

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

A third of respondents said they are currently on the housing waiting list while another third reported not participating in outreach at all.

Another startling finding from the study was that only a quarter of the survey participants felt familiar with L.A. County’s camping laws, which have been used to crack down on unhoused people living in tents.

“If you’re going to monitor residents, they probably need to be aware of the laws that are being enforced,” Henwood said. He said, “What is being offered is not an accommodation that is meant to be permanent, it is not something that is really designed to help someone get back on their feet.”

PATHS also keeps individual records of people over a period of time. This means that within seconds, a researcher can pull up a single person’s profile and see past monthly survey results, giving information about their preferences over time, encounters with police or the trend of their physical and mental health, something the professors say is rare in homelessness research.

“It is very valuable information.” “We want to spend money on things that see an impact and being able to see the full picture on a case-by-case basis is the most important thing,” said Steve Berg, chief policy officer of the National Coalition to End Homelessness.

Henwood and Kuhn said case managers — those who work with people and families experiencing homelessness — do an exceptional job of observing people in their case notes, but not as fully and consistently as PATHS might do.

“There needs to be a system that can easily track the person and allow them to check-in, self-assess and access health themselves, and phones provide a great channel for that,” Kuhn said.

As of now, the monthly information PATHS collects has no direct implications or informed policy decisions, but the researchers say they hope it can one day educate thinking about how to help under-housed people.

“I hope we’ve designed this in a way that the data will take us where we need to go instead of where we already think we need to go,” Kuhn said.

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

revision (Jan 17, 10:53 a.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated Benjamin Henwood’s address. He’s a professor of social work, not an associate professor.

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