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Actionable intelligence – tackling homelessness in the US

Over a two-year period, Los Angeles County in the US witnessed a 12 per cent rise in the homeless population. A “humanitarian crisis” was declared and the cost of homelessness put at $1 billion. Research linking data from six social services agencies provided a clear picture of homelessness and was used, with public support, to draw up a $2 billion dollar programme to build 10,000 houses for homeless people with mental health problems.

How the research helped

This approach enabled a thorough and systematic inquiry that could incrementally improve the government’s ability to understand and aid a vulnerable population in a financially responsible manner, while remaining accountable and transparent to the public.

The process produced the actionable intelligence that is currently informing the County’s homelessness strategy with public support.

Key findings 

Information drawn from the linked data provided a much clearer and more accurate picture. It showed:

  • 148,815 individuals experiencing homelessness in one fiscal year at a cost of $1 billion
  • Mental health and substance abuse services accounted for almost 40 per cent of spending on homelessness
  • Average cost of services for homeless individuals around $6,500 per year
  • A small group equating to around 5 percent of the total homeless population (7,500 people) cost the county around $51,000 per year, almost eight times the cost of the average individual
  • This group accounted for 40 per cent of the county’s total expenditure on homelessness, about $381 million 

Using this valuable information, a two-pronged strategy was recommended:

  1. Better coordination between mental health and substance abuse services to eliminate redundant and overlapping services and ultimately save money through service reduction
  2. Find and retain permanent housing for the high-frequency users with a view to freeing up revenue to better serve other homeless individuals


What was achieved?

In an unprecedented process, LA County’s Board of Supervisors identified a growing issue, recognised its lack of systematic information on the issue, commissioned linked data research to produce that information, shared the results with the public in a referendum, and developed strategies and benchmarks to improve government services based on the findings and ensuing dialogue with local citizens.

The Board has since successfully raised finance of $2 billion dollars in the form of a bond to support the construction of 10,000 houses for homeless people with mental health issues. This is being paid for through an existing 1% tax on Californians earning more than $1 million to pay for mental health services.

The data

Detailed information from six social service agencies was linked to provide a clear and accurate picture of instances of homelessness, demographic information on homeless people, social services accessed and associated costs. The information came from:

  • Department of Health Services
  • Department of Public Health
  • Department of Mental Health
  • Department of Public Social Services
  • Sheriff’s Department
  • Probation Department

The research

The most populous county in the United States, with more than 10 million people from a diverse array of backgrounds living in its jurisdiction, LA County is grappling with rising homelessness and the spiralling social service costs associated with it.

Previously, much of the county’s information about the homeless population came from anecdotal reports by caseworkers and the media.

In 2015, the Board of Supervisors launched a systematic inquiry to develop a more objective picture of the increasing homeless population as well as the associated social service costs.

The people involved

The Board of Supervisors assembled a project team through the Research and Evaluation Services Unit within the Service Integration Branch. Policy summits involved 100 community groups, 30 cities and County experts.

Acknowledgements and further links

This case study is based on an interview with homelessness and housing expert, Dennis Culhane, Professor of Social Policy, University of Pennsylvania and on information on the LA County’s Homelessness Initiative website. 

  • Tackling homelessness in New York City and New York State, forthcoming ADRN podcast episode with Dennis Culhane.

Page last updated: 24/10/2017