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Cell phones give researchers deeper insight into homeless living in Los Angeles

When University of Southern California researchers set out to document the effects of the digital divide on homeless people, they came to an unexpected conclusion: 94% of survey participants own a cell phone.

Taking advantage of this knowledge, the crosstown team from USC and UCLA – brought together by a joint social mission – have conducted a new survey of the homeless population of Los Angeles.

By offering $10 (RM47) gift cards as incentives, the researchers ask participants to log into a mobile app each month to report where they are staying, how they feel, what kind of help they get and how they are affected by policies such as the city’s newly enforced anti-camping ordinance.

Their goal is to fill in what they describe as the “almost complete lack of comprehensive, high-quality evidence about the well-being, needs, and desires of the homeless community” that pervades “every phase of the emerging homelessness crisis in Los Angeles – and a growing response from policy makers.”

A preliminary report released Wednesday by the University of Southern California’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, suggesting that it can provide reliable insights into the hidden dynamics of homelessness and how those are affected by public policies.

But there is a lot of work to be done before they can fine-tune politically relevant information such as where people go after they leave the law enforcement zone.

“In some ways, this is just a more general survey at this point about what people know about these camping laws and do they think it will affect them,” said co-author Benjamin Henwood, a professor at USC’s Susan Durack Beck School of Social. a job.

However, “Under Threat: Surveying Homeless Angels in the Era of Camping Force” provides new insight into how Los Angeles’ revised law and anti-camping laws in other cities are presented on the street. Barely a quarter of the homeless feel they are familiar with the laws, while 43% say they think they will have to move and 30% have no say.

Nearly 20% said they had been in contact with the police in the past 30 days, and 7% said they were cited for staying on the street.

The report provides an accurate picture of street residents. While all respondents were recruited on the streets, many said they cycle back and forth between shelter and no-home. About 16% said they were living in shelters and 8% said they were housed, primarily by doubling their number. Nearly a third stated that they live in vehicles.

Attitudes about shelter were consistent with the results of other studies, among which a high percentage of homeless people would accept offers of housing, but the type of housing mattered. Less than 20% said they would go to a shelter where people sleep in the same large room. Privacy, safety, cleanliness, curfews, and conflict 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 of them reported slightly fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. Forty-nine percent rated their health as fair or poor, compared to 17 percent countywide. Women were more likely than men to describe their health as fair or poor, and 63% reported psychological distress compared to 39% for men.

Smoking was more than twice as common among homeless people, and the Covid-19 vaccination rate was less than half the county average.

Three-quarters of them reported experiencing food insecurity compared to 15% in the governorate.

What the report couldn’t do was track these stats by time and place. It summarizes only the initial survey of 411 participants and a one-month follow-up of 258 participants. A richer picture will come from the monthly follow-up surveys that continue if more respondents are recruited.

“Our ability at this sample size, for example, to specifically relate someone’s presence in a law enforcement area to a set of outcomes would be complex,” said co-author Randall Kohn, a professor at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health. “Doubling the sample size will help.”

Cohen said that registering participants proved difficult and keeping them more engaged. They learn as they go. He helped raise the incentive, which was initially US$5 (RM24), to US$10 (RM48).

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

After trying different approaches, they plan to take advantage of a survey of 5,000 homeless people conducted each year as part of the number of time points. After asking the survey questions, the interviewers will give each participant an offer to register in the mobile application survey program.

“We learned a few things,” Kuhn said. “The best approach is to spend 15 minutes doing a pilot survey and building a certain relationship.”

The Mobile Survey, officially the Periodic Assessment of the Pathways to Housing, Homelessness and Health Study (PATHS), is part of a growing body of academic and nonprofit work that aims to address deficiencies in the large number imposed every two years by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development but is conducted annually In many places, including Los Angeles.

“Using a timed count is like taking a picture with an early model camera where the image is distorted if the subject moves,” declares a critique on the website of Built For Zero, a homelessness initiative of the nonprofit Community Solutions, expressing a widespread complaint about counting. “Homelessness is in flux, and the picture takes time to develop, in this case several months. The result is a blurry picture of the past.”

Build For Zero encourages communities to create “by name” lists by combining information collected by outreach workers with data from service providers outside the HUD-mandated system and informing the public of this information when it is collected.

This will be a challenge for the homeless population that is as large and scattered as in Los Angeles. A 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 count, Cohn and Henwood are not seeking to replace him. They both work on it and see it as an essential part of what Kuhn calls the homeless data ecosystem.

“I think the PIT count is great,” Kuhn said. “For me, the PIT count is another data point in a story over the course of the year.”

“It’s an attempt to engage the community as much as anything else,” Henwood said. “So there is value in that.”

They hope to add value to it, especially in time.

“We hope to get to the place where we have the ability to basically put the data in as soon as we get it,” Cohen said.

They also add depth to the check box questions asked year after year in demographic surveys.

“A lot of times the respondent would say, ‘I wish you’d asked me more interesting questions,'” Cohn said. “In a lot of encounters, the person will say, ‘Are you going to ask me a question about how I feel about things?'” “

By contrast, mobile surveys collect qualitative answers.

“The amount of bullying and psychological and emotional abuse I have experienced by other agents…and the outright abusive security guards,” shouted a black woman about her shelter. “These places keep you mentally disturbed.”

“Rules are given priority over human needs,” said a white man living in the open of his experience in the shelter.

Of all the obstacles researchers face, the Crosstown rivalry is not among them.

“I’m not a local, so that rivalry was nothing,” Henwood said.

Cohn, who has degrees from UC Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania, and Hinwood, who has degrees from Swarthmore and New York University, were brought together by their personal desire to do something about homelessness.

“This is hard work and I think we both have other projects that are better funded,” Kuhn said. “But we love this business.” – Los Angeles Times / News Tribune