When USC researchers set out to document the effects of the digital divide on the homeless, they made an unexpected finding: 94% of their survey participants owned a cell phone.
Using this knowledge, a cross-town team from USC and UCLA—united by a common social mission—conducted a new survey of Los Angeles’ homeless population.
The researchers offer $10 gift cards as incentives and ask participants to log into a mobile phone app monthly to report where they live, how they feel, what kind of help they receive, and how they are affected by policies such as e.g. – a newly valid camping ordinance in the city.
They aim to fill what they describe as “an almost complete lack of comprehensive, high-quality evidence about the well-being, needs or desires of the homeless community” that pervades “every phase of LA’s emerging homelessness crisis — and an increasingly reactive response from policymakers.”
A preliminary report released Wednesday by USC’s Homeless Policy Research Institute provides a qualified assessment of their success. In it, they say their phone sample closely matched the known demographics of the homeless population, suggesting it could 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 fine-tune politically relevant information, such as where people go after being expelled from the control zone.
“In some ways, it’s just a more general survey at this stage about what people know about these camping laws and whether they think it will affect them,” said co-author Benjamin Henwood, a professor at USC’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social . Work.
Still, “Under Threat: Surveying Unhoused Angelenos in the Era of Camping Enforcement” provides a fresh look at how LA’s revised anti-camping ordinance and laws in other cities are viewed on the street. Just under a quarter of homeless people feel informed about the laws, while 43% say they think they will be forced to move and a further 30% have no opinion.
Almost 20% said they had been in contact with the police in the past 30 days, and 7% said they had been charged for being on the street.
The report provides a nuanced picture of the street population. While all respondents were recruited on the street, many reported moving back and forth between being sheltered and unsheltered. About 16% said they lived in shelters and 8% said they were housed, mostly by doubling up. Almost a third said they lived in vehicles.
Attitudes towards shelter were consistent with the findings of other studies, which found that a high percentage of homeless people accepted housing offers, but that the type of housing mattered. Less than 20% said they would go to a shelter where people sleep in the same size room. Privacy, security, cleanliness, curfews and conflicts with staff were the main objections.
Respondents also had “exceptionally worse physical and mental health outcomes” than the adult population of Los Angeles County. Half reported symptoms of anxiety and slightly less reported depression. 49 percent rated their health as good or poor, compared to 17% countywide. Women were more likely than men to describe their health as good or poor, and 63% reported psychological problems compared to 39% of men.
Among homeless people, smoking was more than twice as common, and the rate of vaccination against COVID-19 was less than half the county average.
Three-quarters reported experiencing food insecurity, compared to 15% in the county.
What the report has not yet been able to do is track these statistics by time and place. It only summarizes the initial survey completed by 411 participants and the one-month follow-up completed by 258 participants. A richer picture will be provided by monthly follow-up surveys, which continue if more respondents are obtained.
“Our ability at this sample size to, say, accurately associate the presence of a person specifically in an enforcement zone with a set of results is going to be complicated.” co-author Randall Kuhn, professor at UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, she said. “Doubling the sample size will help.”
Enrolling participants proved difficult and keeping them engaged even more so, Kuhn said. They learn as they go. Increasing the incentive, originally $5, to $10 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 use a point-in-time survey of 5,000 homeless people each year. After asking the survey questions, the interviewers will give each participant an offer to enroll in the mobile app survey program.
“We learned something,” Kuhn said. “The best approach is to spend 15 minutes doing a demo survey and build some rapport.”
The cell phone survey, formally 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 shortcomings of the large number the U.S. mandates every two years. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but is held annually in many locations, including Los Angeles.
“Using point-in-time counts is like taking pictures with an early model camera, where the image is distorted if the subject moves,” says a critic on the website of Built For Zero, a homelessness nonprofit initiative by Community Solutions. expressing a broad complaint against the earl. “Homelessness is constantly in flux and its development takes a long time, in this case many months. The result is a hazy picture of the past.”
Built For Zero encourages communities to compile “by name” lists by combining information collected by outreach workers with data from service providers outside the HUD-mandated system and reporting that information to the public as it is collected.
That would be a challenge for a homeless population as large and dispersed as Los Angeles’. One disturbing finding of the mobile phone survey was that 33% of respondents said they had no contact with outreach workers.
Unlike some critics of the annual number, Kuhn and Henwood do not seek to replace it. Both are working on it and see it as a necessary part of what Kuhn calls the homeless data ecosystem.
“I think the number of PITs is amazing,” Kuhn said. “The PIT count is another data point in the year-long story for me.”
“It’s a community involvement effort as much as anything else,” Henwood said. “And so it has value.
They hope to add value to it, especially timeliness.
“We’re hoping to get to a place where we have the capacity to basically put the data out as soon as we get it,” Kuhn said.
They also add depth to the check-off questions asked year after year in the demographic survey.
“Many times the respondent said, ‘I wish you’d ask me questions that are more interesting,'” Kuhn said. “In many meetings, one says, ‘Are you going to ask me how I feel about things?’
A mobile survey, on the other hand, collects qualitative responses.
“The amount of bullying, mental and emotional abuse I was subjected to from the other clients… and just downright abusive guarding,” one black woman exclaimed about her shelter. “These places will mentally upset you.
“Rules are prioritized over human needs,” a white man living outdoors said of his experience with the shelter.
Of all the obstacles the researchers face, city-to-city rivalry is not among them.
“I’m not local, so the whole rivalry thing wasn’t a thing,” Henwood said.
Kuhn, with degrees from UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania, and Henwood, who earned degrees from Swarthmore and New York University, were united 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 job.