County officials look to define homelessness
At first blush, this week’s call by county supervisors for new and better ways of identifying homelessness appears simple.
Someone who is homeless is someone without a home — homelessness identified.
Not so fast, say those on the frontline of battling homelessness. Defining the problem remains challenging and constantly shifting, they say.
Last week, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a motion put forward by
Supervisors Kathryn Barger and Hilda L. Solis, directing county agencies to report back on efforts to integrate new data-collection tools that will better identify and help the homeless.
“It is critical that Measure H dollars are used efficiently by allocating funding for services and housing where they will have greatest impact,” said Barger.
“This effort seeks to utilize innovative new data collection and analysis tools currently being developed by local research institutions.”
No one is more in tune with the urgent need for collecting data on L.A.’s homeless than Phil Ansell, director of the County of Los Angeles Homeless Initiative.
A quick screening of his YouTube video says it all — data gathered at the Homeless Count is critical to the countywide movement to combat homelessness.
On Friday, Ansell told The Signal that the county’s motion is less about counting numbers and more about efficient numbercrunching and a more accurate reading of the data gathered.
“This motion focuses on maximizing effective use of research technology such as predictive analytics,” he said. “It’s a step beyond counting.”
The field of predictive analytics is being pioneered by specialized groups at both UCLA and USC.
“They basically predict future high costs more effectively,” Ansell said.
And, while those tools are being sharpened, the definition of homeless remains fluid.
The county’s definition of homeless is the one used by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
A phone call to Washington, DC, and to a HUD representative Friday revealed that defining homelessness is a work in progress.
Is someone sleeping and living in their car considered homeless?
A HUD representative who spoke on background said “yes” but that someone “couchsurfing” is not considered homeless.
Six years ago, HUD officials felt the need to redefine homelessness. They broke it down into four categories.
County supervisors, while married to the HUD definition, are now listening to broader definitions for homelessness.
“The (California) Department of Social Services and other state programs like it allows its clients to self declare their homeless status,” Ansell said.
Those agencies consider “couchsurfing” — moving from residence to residence — as being homeless.
County agencies have less than 90 days to integrate new data-collection tools that would better identify and help the homeless.
As Barger and Solis pointed out in the expanded version of their motion, they’re hanging their hats on the predictive analytics pursued by local university policy research groups.
Their motion reads: “Various academic and research institutions are presently working to develop methodologies to better collect information on the individuals and families who are currently homeless in L.A. County, as well as on individuals and families most at risk of becoming homeless.
“The California Policy Lab at UCLA and Urban Labs at the University of Chicago, for example, are jointly partnering with CEO to develop predictive statistical models that draw on County and HMIS administrative data to identify individuals who are most likely to become homeless or likely to become homeless high -cost utilizers of county services.
“The Homelessness Policy Research Institute at USC convenes researchers and policymakers to help design and coordinate timely, relevant, and actionable research to combat and prevent homelessness in Los Angeles County.
“HPRI is supporting the development of predictive analytic screening tools to identify newly homeless individuals who are at high risk of chronic homelessness, with a focus on populations of employable adults and foster youth.”
By sharpening the tools that break down the amount of money spent in the past on high-cost users of county services, the more effectively county officials can dole out $26.6 million in funding in the future.