Homelessness researchers get real-time data from cell phone surveys

Homelessness researchers get real-time data from cell phone surveys

Homelessness researchers get real-time data from cell phone surveys

A homeless encampment in Los Angeles. Credit: Shutterstock

Few LA City Hall laws spark as much debate as those dealing with homelessness. Look no further than the city’s controversial ordinance banning camping in certain public places, which became a hot topic ahead of the mayoral election. Yet in many policy discussions, the perspectives of those most affected are missing: homeless people.

A team of researchers from USC and UCLA is trying to solve this problem. They are conducting an ongoing new survey of LA’s homeless population, sending questions directly to cell phones belonging to homeless people. The goal is to fill an information gap about the well-being, needs or desires of the homeless community. This information could better inform policy decisions in the future, researchers say.

The initial results, released last month by USC Sol Price School of Public Policy’s Homelessness Policy Research Institute (HPRI), not only shed light on the health and housing preferences of Los Angeles’ homeless population, but also served as a proof of concept. Offering $10 e-gift cards, the researchers collected data from hundreds of people who received questionnaires via text or email.

“Researchers were able to provide new information that simply hadn’t been provided, but also help us learn that it’s possible to collect data in a less expensive way than trying to go out on the street and to interview people,” said Gary Painter, director of HPRI and professor at USC Price School.

One of the study’s key early findings — co-authored by USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School professor Benjamin Henwood — is the poorer health of homeless people. Compared to the general population, survey respondents reported five times the level of food insecurity, three times the rate of poor general health, and twice the rate of anxiety and depression.

The survey also revealed striking disparities between housed and unhoused people, who were more likely to report poorer health indicators. Study co-author Randall Kuhn, a professor at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, recently published a review article emphasizing the need for further research into the health of unprotected people. In the future, the researchers plan to explore whether additional months of homelessness lead to further deterioration in health.

“We know there is early mortality in this general homeless population, but there hasn’t been attention paid to the health of the homeless population,” Henwood said. “Especially on the West Coast, given the large proportion of people who regularly experience homelessness, there isn’t a lot of research.”

The findings challenge the myth that people choose to be homeless. Almost all respondents (90%) were interested in some sort of permanent or temporary accommodation. What they are not interested in are collective shelters. Only 2% said they would consider these rally settings.

Asked about perceived barriers to sheltering or housing, respondents cited lack of privacy (58%), security issues (54%) and negative interactions with staff (35%), among other problems.

This question about shelter staff resonated with a man camping in Culver City, who responded to the survey and asked not to be named in this story. He recalled a “verbally abusive” security guard at a shelter. At another, he said a representative for the landlord had once entered his living space, apparently to change the curtains, only to throw away his belongings. He had to pick up his things in a trash can.

The Culver City man said another concern about shelters is sharing space with people with serious mental illnesses or other special needs.

“There’s this feeling that as long as you put people under one roof, that’s all that matters,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how good their experience is under the roof. Just put them under a roof, and they can find out for themselves.”

Researchers collected initial survey responses from 411 people, 298 of whom responded to a subsequent survey a month later. The survey, officially called the Periodic Assessment of Housing, Homelessness and Health Trajectories (PATHS) Study, aims to collect data more frequently than annual in-person assessments of homelessness.

Previous research by Henwood suggested that 94% of homeless people owned a cell phone. The high rate of cellphone ownership is surprising, Henwood said, but he noted that there are several relatively inexpensive options available to people and many are eligible for free devices through government programs. For homeless people, perhaps the hardest part is not owning a cellphone but keeping it charged, he added.

“Homeless people can often be housed or not. People move,” said Saba Mwine, chief executive of HPRI. “I think the mobile phone is a very good way to capture a population on the move.”

Launched in 2018, HPRI facilitates collaborative research focused on homelessness in Los Angeles. The research center now has over 100 researchers, policymakers, service providers and experts with lived experience of homelessness in the region.

HPRI recently created a research agenda identifying homelessness research priorities, such as racial equity and family homelessness. It will announce fellowships based on this program soon, Painter said.

As for the cell phone survey, the researchers plan to measure the effects of camping enforcement orders in Los Angeles County. The initial investigation revealed little knowledge of anti-camping laws, which restrict where people can sleep and store goods. Respondents, however, expressed high levels of concern about prescriptions.

“It increases the anxiety and instability they feel,” Henwood said.

Related research is published in the journal Focus AJPM.

More information:
Jessica Richards et al, Homelessness and Health: A Literature Review, Focus AJPM (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.focus.2022.100043

Provided by University of Southern California

Quote: Homelessness researchers obtain real-time data from cell phone surveys (2022, December 1) retrieved December 1, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-12-homelessness -real-time-mobile-surveys.html

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