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Visualizing the Fight Against Homelessness in L.A. County

Cities and their nonprofit partners should look to data visualizations to get a better sense of homeless populations and where resources are most needed.

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

Homelessness is on the rise in cities throughout the US. While networks of organizations work to remedy this problem, their focus is expanding beyond mitigation to include prevention measures. To this end, organizations like Understanding Homelessness have created interactive maps of the US that attempt to capture the breadth of the homelessness epidemic. These maps are valuable tools that provide information that allow governments and nonprofits to see where and how people experiencing homelessness live, predict where there might be an increase in homelessness, and target services more effectively.

It is no secret that homelessness is rapidly increasing in some parts of the US. In the last two years the homeless population in California has increased by 16 percent. Government and nonprofit aid programs are helpful but seldom keep chronically-homeless people off the streets. These programs are also expensive: Certain parts of the country spend upwards of $40,000 per homeless individual annually. With preventative measures that aim to provide stable housing, the cost to taxpayers could decrease by up to 60 percent.

Statistics likes these are a critical component of the story that drives public action towards combating homelessness. Data visualizations take that story to the next level, allowing the public to see just how complex and widespread the problem truly is.

So, how can government and nonprofit organizations visualize homelessness? What information could they display that will help inform a better understanding of the causes and consequences? And how can government and nonprofit leaders use that information to tell a more effective story and push for action?

The answer is not easy. It involves numerous social and economic factors, but seeing and understanding where people experiencing homelessness live today and where homelessness is likely to occur can prove to be important pieces of information that any leader will need. GIS analysts at Esri worked with government leaders from LA County to answer these questions with this Story Map (and teach others to do the same with this tutorial).

Several mapping projects have attempted to draw attention to key indicators that lead to homelessness including evictions, health disparities, and rent affordability; however, very few maps take a holistic approach to analyze all indicators that lead to homelessness (e.g., poverty, unemployment, disabilities, public assistance, rent burden, domestic violence, mental illness, etc.).

The following map was created by analysts at Esri, which overlaps several indicators mentioned above to see where one or more risk factors increase the risk of homelessness throughout LA County:

LA County Homelessness Map 1
Analyzing various indicators to identify areas with the highest risk is an important step in targeting specific prevention programs. It goes without saying that the problems persistent in Los Angeles are not the same problems as those that exist in Long Beach; understanding all risk factors by specific type is a powerful tool that enables governments to allocate resources more effectively.

The following maps present a few examples of targeted intervention programs where they would be of highest need in accordance with the risk factors identified previously. They focus on unemployment assistance, affordable housing, and veteran support.

LA County Homelessness Map 2

LA County Homelessness Map 3

LA County Homelessness Map 4
In addition to looking at prevention activities, the map makers also focused on understanding the current conditions of people experiencing homelessness.

The following maps are a few examples from the Story Map that show the conditions that those experiencing homelessness are living in. They show the highest concentration of unsheltered homeless people; places where people are living in cars, vans and campers; and places where people are living on the street.

LA County Homelessness Map 5

LA County Homelessness Map 6

LA County Homelessness Map 7
In terms of preventing recidivism and reducing costs, an incredibly effective intervention for ending homelessness is to provide permanent housing. It is important, though, to remember that such a complex problem could not possibly have a one-size-fits-all solution. There are many other factors to consider, including mental health services, substance abuse treatment, financial literacy and job training. For that reason, analysts on this project sought to weigh several options for approaching the problem. They looked to GIS mapping to determine where each solution (or combination of solutions) could reap the most reward.

The following maps compare five possible solutions for addressing homelessness in LA County as presented in the Story Map:

1. Optimizing Social Equity – This map attempts to measure the equity of resource distribution across the county.

LA County Homelessness Map 8
2. Optimizing Access to Resources – This map shows where new facilities and resources can be placed to be closest to where people experiencing homelessness live today.

LA County Homelessness Map 9
3. Focusing on High Risk Areas – This map highlights areas at the highest risk of producing homelessness and shows where resources should be prioritized to help those with the highest need for intervention.

LA County Homelessness Map 10
4. Centralizing Resources – This map shows where centralized resources could be most effective to encourage the consolidation of agencies and programs.

LA County Homelessness Map 10
5. Street Strategy – This map focuses on the most vulnerable homeless populations in LA County based on number of 311 calls related to homelessness, crime rates, and the number of chronically homeless individuals in the area.

LA County Homelessness Map 11
Mapping each of these solutions provides context for further debate about which approach, or combination of approaches, could be taken by government and nonprofit leaders, and overlaying several options on top of one another can help LA County decision-makers prioritize projects and develop a long-term strategy for ending homelessness. The following map attempts to show where a combination of interventions would be most effective according to the risk indicators and proposed solutions.

LA County Homelessness Map 13
This mapping project has set forth very lofty goals for those working in LA County to end homelessness. Mapping out this plan was a critical first step because it provides a clear strategic direction for county officials and an opportunity to attempt different solutions while tracking progress over time. Most importantly, it provides a framework that encourages and enables governments and non-profits to coordinate resources for more effective results.

All eyes will be watching LA County in the coming years as new ballot measures passed in 2017 (Measure HHH and Measure H) are implemented, and new targeted services such as those mentioned in this Story Map are applied across the county. In describing LA’s homelessness and approach to addressing it, these maps provide an exciting learning opportunity for other city, county, and state governments.