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California

Is there a way to predict who will become homeless? These UCLA researchers say yes

A homeless encampment on a boardwalk in Venice Beach.
A homeless encampment on a boardwalk in Venice Beach.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

With the ranks of homeless people growing faster than housing is being built, one of the most popular strategies for reducing homelessness has become to simply keep people in their homes.

In theory, a small infusion of cash, counseling or legal aid could be the difference that prevents someone from ending up on the street. But reality isn’t so simple.

Of the tens of thousands of people who are on the brink of losing their homes every year in California and across the country, only a tiny fraction do.

“Only 1 in 10 people who seem like they are going to become homeless — actually become homeless,” said Phil Ansell, director of Los Angeles County’s Homeless Initiative.

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Most prevention programs don’t take such statistics into account, erring on the side of helping as many people in need as possible. But to be truly effective and cost-effective, a program would have to be able to identify that one person who will become homeless with reasonable accuracy.

Until now, there’s been no way to do that. Researchers at UCLA’s California Policy Lab and the University of Chicago Poverty Lab, however, are changing that by analyzing millions of interactions between Los Angeles County’s social services agencies and residents.

In a paper released this month, UCLA reported that it has improved the odds of identifying who will become homeless to 1 in 2.

Buoyed by the results, L.A. County homeless officials are launching a $3-million pilot program to put the laboratory’s work to a real-world test. The departments of health, mental health, children and family services and public social services will comb a list of people compiled by UCLA and target them for preventive services.

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UCLA, which is conducting the research at no cost to the county, also will identify additional at-risk families, teenagers and young adults.

Janey Rountree, executive director of the California Policy Lab, said the researchers used predictive analytics to model hundreds of potential risk factors for homelessness. Chief among them were interactions with the county’s social services agencies.

Half of the people who became homeless for the first time in 2017, and 70% of those who were previously homeless and had lost their housing again in 2017, were already clients with the county. Those at the highest risk were found to have come from areas of high poverty and had been involved with multiple agencies, from mental health services to the jail.

Given the overall correlation, the researchers were able to predict each person’s likelihood of becoming homeless in 2017 by examining all county records of single adults over the four preceding years.

Among the 3,000 ranked as most likely to lose housing, nearly half did — a rate 48 times the average county client. Among the top 1% of that group — or about 19,600 people — more than a third became homeless.

Researchers concluded that as many as 6,900 episodes of homelessness could have been prevented by addressing that 1%.

Ansell said he will present the L.A. County Board of Supervisors with an implementation plan for the pilot prevention program in March. Staff from key county agencies will build a new team and create individual assistance plans for people identified as at risk of homelessness. The team will have flexible funding that could be used for outside services such as eviction assistance or rental subsidies.

In its initial phase, the pilot will come on top of prevention programs currently funded by the Measure H homeless sales tax. T

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In the first two years of Measure H, the county has spent about $22 million on prevention. Reports show that 2,205 people and families received assistance, and 85% of them retained their housing.

“The result spreads scarce prevention resources across a large swath of low-income households,” according to a report by the county’s Homeless Initiative.

What isn’t known is how many of those receiving help would have been successful without it or how many who ultimately became homeless were missed by the current screening process, which relies on self-identification of housing instability or a case manager’s observation.

The pilot program is not expected to have an effect on the number of people who are currently homeless in L.A. County, nor would it immediately cut the flow of people into homelessness. The hope is that it will eventually lead to a more efficient use of funding for prevention.

“Prevention, by its nature, is a one-time relatively modest intervention,” Rountree said. “What we’re really trying to do is to get to more people sooner with a less expensive intervention that changes the course of their life, avoids lots of traumatizing events for that person, but also frees up the rest of the system to focus on the deepest challenge, which is the chronically unsheltered population.”


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