USC launches project to reduce LA homelessness

Benjamin Henwood, an assistant professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, has formed a team of experts to conduct research related to homelessness in Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles County, approximately 47,000 people experienced homelessness in 2016, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Around one third of this population was chronically homeless. Often, these people are desperately in need of permanent housing to alleviate health and safety concerns.

According to Henwood, the rising average age of chronically homeless people has contributed to the increase in age-related health problems they have.

“People who experience chronic homelessness … are an aging cohort, and they’ve been on the streets for quite some time,” Henwood said. “Twenty years ago, their average age was in their 30s, and now their average age is in their 50s. It’s clear that these people have gotten older, but the services environment hasn’t changed with them.”

In addition, Henwood said that homeless individuals tend to age rapidly due to the harsh environment they live in. Many who would ordinarily not yet be prone to geriatric health issues are suffering from them at a relatively young age.

“Though the average age [of chronically homeless people] is around 50, because of the hard life they’ve led, from a physical standpoint they actually 10 or 20 years older,” Henwood said. “Their life expectancy is about two decades shorter for someone who has experienced long-term homelessness.”

Similar to elderly people, who often face the choice of staying in their current residence or moving to an expensive nursing home with full-time care, chronically homeless individuals often desire to maintain their independence, Henwood said.

Henwood explained that, though providing them with a home is certainly an achievement, other services performed by permanent housing providers in Los Angeles, such as preventative health measures and treatments for age-related health problems, can allow them to live a more independent, healthy life.

Henwood and his team seek to identify ways to bridge the gap between available health services and those living in permanent housing without access to them. Henwood said that simple solutions, such as a screening process to identify conditions and treatments required, can drastically raise residents’ quality of life.

Moreover, according to Henwood, most of these permanent housing locations for the chronically homeless have health professionals either on site or a short walk away. Therefore, the screening process would allow caseworkers to analyze residents’ potential health issues quickly and refer them to appropriate doctors for treatment or prevention. Thus. the screening serves as a way to pair residents with resources more efficiently.

In addition to the screening process, apartment retrofitting can serve as an effective way to prevent health issues in the future, according to John Lahey, the project coordinator and a graduate of USC’s Masters in Social Work program. Lahey said that simple things like handrails and soft floors installed in units can substantially alleviate the risk of serious injury due to a fall. These, as well as other modifications that can be done to individual apartments as needed, are easy and affordable ways to prevent some health problems from ever occurring.

The first six months of the project will be spent collecting data, followed by focus groups and eventually leading toward helping the Skid Row Housing Trust — the largest provider of permanent housing for the homeless in Los Angeles — implement their findings.