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Can a New Screening Tool Help Solve the Crisis of Black Homelessness?

Why Los Angeles researchers are looking differently at Skid Row.

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Photo by Jessica Goodheart

African Americans comprise 9% percent of Los Angeles County but 40% of its homeless population.


 
For more than two decades Pete White has advocated for Los Angeles’ poorest residents. His offices at the L.A. Community Action Network (LA CAN) are located on the city’s Skid Row, a tent-lined humanitarian crisis zone that one U.N. observer has compared to a Syrian refugee camp.

White, who is LA CAN’s founder and executive director, had spent an emotional morning at a Los Angeles Police Commission meeting concerning the deadly shooting of a young African-American father. He took a minute to snap a photo of a ring-necked dove that had perched on a planter on LA CAN’s rooftop garden before sitting down to talk about the “crazy weight” born by the black community who are greatly overrepresented among the county’s homeless and on Skid Row. African Americans comprise nine percent of the county’s population but 40 percent of the homeless people in Los Angeles County. White is battle scarred but hopeful that a new screening tool, released in a report last week by the non-profit Economic Roundtable research organization, can help stem the tide of people who end up on the streets.

“You have to do everything humanly possible to stop people from becoming homeless,” says White. He believes that the report, Early Intervention to Prevent Persistent Homelessness, is also timely as it “doubles down” on the findings of another report on black homelessness released in February by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

LA CAN’s Pete White. (Photo: Jessica Goodheart)

The latter report attributes the disproportionately high number of African-Americans on the streets and in shelters to institutional racism in the health care, criminal justice and education systems, and to the job and housing markets.

To be clear, the Economic Roundtable’s predictive tool is intended to address the problem of the rising number of people in general falling into homelessness, rather than targeting the vulnerabilities of specific groups. But to one of its architects, Roundtable executive director Dan Flaming, racial inequality is “the elephant in the room” and that fact is present in the data that run the report’s model. (Disclosure: Flaming is a member of this website’s advisory board.) African Americans comprise nine percent of the county’s population but 40 percent of the homeless people in Los Angeles County.


“We can’t house our way out of homelessness unless we reduce the flow of people into chronic homelessness.”


The model is constructed from 15 years of public data and is able to predict whether certain newly unemployed workers will become homeless with as much as 81 percent accuracy, according to the report.

“Over half of people who experience homelessness get out pretty quickly under their own steam, and often that is by finding a job,” says Flaming. Researchers tested their tool’s mettle on two populations that tend to be actively looking for work and are thus ripe for intervention: young people on public benefits and low-wage workers who have recently lost their jobs.

“We can’t house our way out of homelessness unless we reduce the flow of people into chronic homelessness,” says Flaming. Although the overall number of homeless people decreased slightly last year, more people also experienced homelessness for the first time, according to the 2018 homeless count.

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Predictive analytics—like the ones used by the Economic Roundtable—often cause concern in minority communities because of the way such models can reinforce existing racial biases in policing or lending.


L.A. voters have approved nearly $5 billion to fight homelessness. Many say this can only be a down payment on a problem that is structural in nature.


White admits to some trepidation about the potential for the tool’s misuse in the “wrong hands” but expresses full confidence in both Flaming and the Economic Roundtable, adding that he is heartened by the fact that the tool’s methodology has been made public and transparent.

Gary Blasi, an attorney and veteran homeless advocate who sits on the Roundtable’s board, concurs. “This is one of the few very concrete examples where these tools are being used to benefit the people who are usually the most disadvantaged by those tools,” he says. Predictive analytics are commonly used in the public health context, he adds.

In recent years, Los Angeles city and county voters have approved nearly $5 billion in funding to address homelessness. But many say that this can represent only a down payment on a problem that is structural in nature. Blasi described the Economic Roundtable tool as a way to conduct “triage in a parking lot while the hospital system gets rebuilt.”

The Roundtable has the support of these and other longtime homeless advocates. But its researchers are currently locked in a dispute with Los Angeles County, which could use the model, the Los Angeles Times reported. The county supplied the Roundtable with the data more than a decade ago, but for a more narrow use, and had asked for it to be destroyed, according to the Times.


Black men between the ages of 45 and 54 are 16 times more prevalent among the homeless than in the population overall.


“We are working on resolving the dispute with the county and hope they will use the screening tools,” Flaming said by email.

In the meantime, any organization—or region—that serves high-risk populations, and can link those in need to housing and services, can use the tool, according to Flaming. The report includes factors that could be used to calculate the probability that clients would become persistently homeless and allow agencies to prioritize them for services accordingly.

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According to the Economic Roundtable report, four types of employers account for half of all workers who become persistently homeless: temp agencies, retail, janitorial/security services, and private households.

Some of the risk factors that lead working people to fall into homelessness include the following:

  • Being single
  • Previous experience of homelessness
  • Episodic low-wage employment

Risk factors that lead young people to fall into homelessness include:

  • Being homeless as a child
  • Time spent in foster care
  • A dearth of family connections
  • A history of substance abuse

For both groups studied, African-Americans are more likely to fall into persistent homelessness than the population at large. Black men between the ages of 45 and 54 are 16 times more prevalent among the homeless than in the population overall.


“Once people become homeless, they sell their bodies—men and women. And then there are drugs. There is so much. Sometimes I cry.”


White believes that the Economic Roundtable model—which considers demographics as well as an individual’s health, criminal justice past and work history—could be especially helpful to African-Americans who are often unwilling to disclose to case workers mental health challenges, conditions that could open the door to services.

Typically, people who have been homeless longer receive priority for services. But the more time they spend on the streets or in shelters, the harder it becomes to help them because of the scarring experience of homelessness, according to Flaming, whose report shows it also saves taxpayers money to intervene earlier.

Down the street from LA CAN, Benton Hall, who is 60, agrees that preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place is critical. Leaning on a cane, Hall stands next to his tent, his back against the wrought iron fence that surrounds the Pacific Fish Company on East Sixth Street. “Once people become homeless,” he says, “they sell their bodies—men and women. And then there are drugs. There is so much. Sometimes I cry.”

Hall, who suffered a stroke 10 years ago, has been living on Skid Row’s sidewalks for only about a week. But as a minister, he says, he used to come from South Los Angeles to hand out food on Monday nights. Now that he’s living on the sidewalk, he adds, he’s been greeted with kindness by other residents of the area. Once he gets into housing, he says, he’ll return to the neighborhood to help.


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