Business & Economy

The fight against homelessness is looking to data for answers

The fight against homelessness in Los Angeles is turning to the data for solutions.
The fight against homelessness in Los Angeles is turning to the data for solutions.
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As L.A. County embarks on a massive effort to house tens of thousands of homeless people over the next few years, officials are hoping to utilize real-time data to speed the process along.

For years, the L.A. Homeless Services Authority and the United Way of Greater L.A. have been working to create an information management system to link homeless individuals and families to appropriate services. Now, they're planning to use data captured in that system to troubleshoot and problem solve as new programs roll out.

A $428,000 investment from the United Way will put data coordinators into each region of Los Angeles, a program the county will eventually start paying for with dollars from Measure H, a sales tax hike that kicks in October 1. 

'What we've learned is that each community has a specific issue to that community, but one that could probably be addressed by digging into the data," said Michael Nailat, program officer with the United Way of Greater L.A. 

For instance, the San Fernando Valley saw a big jump in homelessness in 2016, which community officials initially thought might be attributable to homeless migrating into the area from other places.

"But if we dig deeper into the data, we see that it's people who've lived in these communities all along and are experiencing higher levels of poverty," he said. "It's a way to make sure the conversation is the right conversation."

In another case, L.A.'s housing authority wanted to figure out why it was able to get some homeless veterans hooked up with rental vouchers quickly, while other applications languished for weeks. Nailat said they were able to dig into their data and eliminate inconsistencies and bureaucratic stumbles to speed the process up. 

Josh Decell, associate director of data integration at LAHSA, said the way outreach is done to homeless individuals is changing as the data system rolls out. 

"If a citizen calls 211 and says there's someone who seems like they've got some serious mental issues and they need help, then we can deploy a Department of Mental Health outreach team to go connect with that person," Decell said.

Then, any other service provider who encounters that individual will be able to see what other teams have contacted them and how effective the contact was and whether a different approach is needed.

Now, officials are looking to expand that sort of nimble data analytics to the entire homeless services system. The new initiative is aimed at providing those working on homelessness with the tools and resources to ask and answer those kinds of questions themselves. It kicked off with a two-day training for providers last week.

John Horn of L.A. Family Housing, who attended the training, said his organization wants to be able to compare and contrast what it's doing through its various programs with other providers in the region. 

"It really goes to identifying the best practices," he said. "Right now there should be no ego involved in the work that we're doing."

The pressure, he said, is on to be nimble, utilize resources well, and make a big impact with the new public dollars flowing in under Measure H.

"Public scrutiny is at an all time high," he said. "We gave you the money, why am I not seeing the person who's been homeless on my corner for the last year gone. We have to be able to let them know, the resources are there, this is what we're doing, and then start showing those successes."