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LA homelessness: Picking who gets housing first

In this file photo, a homeless man walks down the street as a new day begins in the Wall Street area where the homeless have woken up before dawn to dismantle their beds and encampments before businesses open October 12, 2007 in the downtown Skid Row area of Los Angeles. As the city and county attempt to shelter more of the homeless, the nonprofit Economic Roundtable has developed a tool that could be used to determine who should get housing first.
In this file photo, a homeless man walks down the street as a new day begins in the Wall Street area where the homeless have woken up before dawn to dismantle their beds and encampments before businesses open October 12, 2007 in the downtown Skid Row area of Los Angeles. As the city and county attempt to shelter more of the homeless, the nonprofit Economic Roundtable has developed a tool that could be used to determine who should get housing first.
David McNew/Getty Images

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In Los Angeles, a limited housing supply for homeless people means putting the neediest at the front of the line is a must, officials say, but determining who needs housing the most is a tricky task.

The Economic Roundtable, a non-profit policy group sees the answer in the form of L.A. County's extensive records system. The group is pitching a computer model to county governments, including L.A.'s, that can comb through public health and jail records to generate a list of the top candidates for housing.

People who use or end up in these systems the most cost the county millions of dollars each year, said Daniel Flaming, the group's president. 

"You can use (the data) to rank the entire homeless population based on their likely future cost," he said.

County administrator Phil Ansell said in a statement that the county is currently reviewing the tool.

The Economic Roundtable is offering to pay the initial costs of building the model for Los Angeles, estimated upwards of $250,000, with the help of foundations.

L.A. County has already gotten on board with what's called "coordinated entry" — a database linking homeless service providers and county agencies all in one system. Homeless people who walk into any participating agency take part in an extensive survey, the answers to which determine what services they qualify for and whether their need level gives them a priority for housing.

Flaming said the problem with relying on surveys is that "it's a much coarser screening tool and it is also vulnerable to the subjectivity of the people conducting the interview."

Flaming said his group's algorithm would produce a more accurate picture of who needs housing the most. 

No one at Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority was available for an interview, but Director of Programs Christopher Callandrillo said in a statement that LAHSA welcomed the tool as an "additional planning resource to assess data and identify the potential for large-scale savings to our public service systems."

"We look forward to exploring ways in which it can augment our Coordinated Entry System, which triages homeless persons based on acuity of need and connects them individually to services and on-the-ground support by public and private social service and housing providers and outreach workers," he said. 

Santa Clara County has already adopted the model.