Can AI Fix Homelessness?

This is why LA's health services believe it can...

Dana Vanderford stood outside against window

Dana Vanderford leads the LA Homelessness Prevention Unit. Credit: Grace Widyatmadja

Los Angeles is the city of dreams. For some, those dreams come true. Lights, cameras, money - everything they want. For others, especially for LA natives, those dreams can quickly turn into nightmares.

This isn’t a story about gentrification or rising house prices - although they play a massive part in the problem. This isn’t about drug addiction or domestic violence - although they can cause uncertainty in a person’s living situation.

This story is about homelessness in general and how AI might help solve that problem.

Ricky Brown was a 65-year-old maintenance man. After an injury from his youth caught up with him, he had to go on disability. That action put him on a fixed income, and he could barely scrape by in his one-bedroom apartment in Crenshaw.

His world was thrust into chaos; his ex-wife passed away - leaving him as the sole provider for his three grandkids. Although he had a little money - those savings quickly disappeared as he learned how much money it takes to raise three boys.

Ricky has bunk beds in the living room and a couch - they serve as the place to sleep for the three boys. They were receiving food aid, but due to some problems with the paperwork, they have gone without it for quite a while. But the problems don’t stop there - not even close.

Ricky has car repairs to be done, and he has back-due rent and utilities. Like many in LA, Ricky is a few bad weeks away from complete loss. But like any good grandfather, he only wants to provide more for his grandkids to try to find a larger place where the kids can have rooms for themselves. But with the current conditions - that didn’t seem possible.

Then Ricky’s phone rang again recently.

His world once again was shaken up. On the other end was a representative from the Homelessness Prevention unit. They reached out to Ricky with a simple goal: make sure he never goes homeless.

They offered him a housing voucher - bringing down his expenses. They provided him with food stamps and cash aid - boosting his income. There was no guarantee that this would be enough - but, as Ricky described - it was a lifesaver. This is probably his best chance at becoming self-sustaining in the ever-changing landscape of LA.

But Ricky is just one person in LA who was having hard times - how did the Homelss Prevention Unit know about Ricky? Because, on average, 227 people fall into homelessness every day in LA. Why him? Why not the people that are already homeless?

Well, that is where AI comes into the picture. Los Angeles County Department of Health Services is trying to cut out homelessness at its root. Yes, 227 people fall into it daily, but about 207 find temporary homes every day, too. This means the easiest way to combat the problem is through preventing it from happening in the first place.

The program tracks data from multiple government agencies—everything from ER visits to applications for public benefits (like food stamps or health insurance). With the data for the different departments in LA, the AI creates a list of "at-risk" people.

That list is then given to the Homelessness Prevention Unit, and they get to work. The case managers are then given this list of names and will start cold-calling people, essentially offering thousands of dollars of aid to the people the AI deems are at risk.

This doesn’t mean the system is perfect. Some people never pick up. Some are too sceptical of these institutions to help. The saddest is when they are too late to reach the person. If people lose their housing before being called, they are no longer eligible for this program.

But when they do get the person in time, it can change their future trajectory forever. They will be assigned a case manager who helps secure money for rent, utilities, and groceries. They are given additional resources for mental health, medical insurance, and medicine. The help won’t last forever. They only have access to the case manager for around six months. After that, they are on their own - but the goal is to set them up to be self-sustaining!

It’s not clear if the program will be a success. Even though AI is pulling together the information and doing its part to help at-risk individuals - there is still much room for human error. This attempt to curb homelessness is part of a study being conducted, and the funding will eventually be cut to determine the program's future.

Can a few thousand dollars be enough to stop people from sliding into homelessness? Is the AI targeting the right groups of people? These questions will have to be answered in a few years. Until then, people like Ricky will hopefully get the help they so desperately deserve!

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