USC event brings attention to new study on veterans experiencing homelessness

Los Angeles is home to the highest number of unhoused vets in the country, and these researchers are investigating why.

When Benjamin Henwood started his research on veteran homelessness in Los Angeles, he knew many residents were aware of the challenges of homelessness across the city. However, the USC professor and director of the USC Center for Homelessness, Housing and Health Equity Research said many people don’t make the extra effort to learn more about people experiencing homelessness.

“I don’t think people often think too much about who’s on the streets,” Henwood said.

It turns out that a significant number of veterans make up the homeless population in L.A. and in the United States, L.A. has the highest concentration of unhoused veterans. According to Henwood, there are over 4,000 unhoused military veterans in the county, and that number has stayed the same over the last five years.

To understand why these numbers have stagnated, experts in this field partnered with the RAND Corporation to conduct a study that followed 26 veterans for one year.

On Nov. 12, USC held a virtual event with Sarah Hunter, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at USC, Rick Garvey, a research coordinator at RAND, and Henwood. The event, called “Los Angeles: The epicenter of veterans experiencing homelessness,” was held on Veterans Day to discuss what the research team learned from the study.

Panelists discussed that one of the study’s key findings was that most of the veterans were interested in ameliorating their situation, and actively seeking to find housing. Henwood said this finding contradicts the false narrative some people may have about unhoused populations.

“The idea that people want to be on the streets does not ring true based on our findings,” Henwood said.

During the discussion, which was attended by the USC community, veterans and L.A. residents, Garvey said researchers tracked the veterans from 2019 to 2020 and interviewed them each month for a year. In the study, Garvey said veterans were presented with a number of housing options from safe campgrounds and hotels, to their own apartment and group shelters.

Researchers said it was important to provide participants with a range of options to best suit each of their needs.

“It was really important to try and understand what people really wanted and needed before just trying to place them in one type of housing, because it just didn’t work,” Garvey said.

According to Hunter, there are other cities in the U.S. that are able to get veterans into housing within a month, yet in L.A., some veterans are not able to access housing within the year.

Ultimately, the panel sought to address concerns over why L.A.’s circumstances were so unique. Leigh Hopper, a USC media relations specialist who moderated the discussion, asked the panelists about what L.A. was missing that other cities have and have proven to be more successful.

The panelists found that a variety of factors draw many unhoused individuals to the city but also make it difficult to escape these conditions, including the city’s lack of affordable housing, long wait times for unhoused individuals trying to find accommodations and mild weather conditions that make it manageable to live for prolonged periods outside. Another factor the researchers found was that the city’s Veteran Affairs (VA), which provides medical care and other services for veterans and their families, is understaffed.

Hunter also brought attention to a homeless veteran in the study, 51-year-old Ralph, who researchers found living in a bush outside of a library in Hollywood. Hunter said by the end of the study, Ralph’s quality of life improved significantly because he moved out of California.

“By the end of the study he was living in Atlanta, he obtained a job, his HIV and PTSD had improved because he was able to get care at the VA there and get therapy and get medication compliant,” Hunter said.

Ralph had many failed attempts to be housed through the VA in L.A., according to Hunter. So after several failed attempts at finding housing, Ralph decided moving to Georgia would be the best option for him.

But for individuals who are unable to move out of state, panelists said that improving housing, health care and other welfare for unhoused communities in the city is important. Creating affordable and accessible housing options was one of the major takeaways from this virtual event. Above all, Henwood said that it is important for community members and policymakers alike to understand that not every veteran’s case is the same.

“Seventeen of 26 (veterans experiencing homelessness) received some type of housing, and all but two retained housing during the study,” the study read. “However, only three veterans had received a permanent housing solution by the time the study ended.”

Because this study took place during the pandemic, however, the team ran into some issues, such as keeping contact with the veterans who were in the study. Henwood brought up the veterans’ lack of access to their normal charging stations as fast-food chains, coffee shops, libraries and shelters were all being closed. As a result, unhoused individuals were often unable to charge their phones. Henwood said, though, that researchers were able to stay in contact with them through cell phones that were provided as part of the study.

Beyond this research, the pandemic has also generally impacted the problem of homelessness in L.A. due to the fact that the homeless population is more susceptible to COVID-19 infection and death. Research by UCLA epidemiologists found that unhoused individuals in L.A. County were 50% more likely to die if they contracted the virus.

But through housing opportunities like “Project Roomkey,” an organization that was not around before the pandemic, communities were able to pool resources. Project Roomkey is a non-congregated shelter option for people experiencing homelessness. Garvey said many veterans used the organization to charge their phones and find temporary housing.

“We had a lot of vets use that program and it was wonderful,” Garvey said. “And it really opened up opportunities for vets to not have to think about some of the daily issues… and we felt that was really important during COVID.”

Though the pandemic created challenges along the way, this study ultimately reaffirmed what Henwood, Hunter and Garvey already knew.

“It was a stressful, distressing event for everyone. You know housing or lack thereof was really more of a driver of people’s well-being, right and their stress levels,” Henwood said. “And I think that just goes to show how important that issue is even during a global pandemic.”

Beyond hosting events shedding light on these issues, the University also offers several resources for students experiencing homelessness and for veterans. USC’s Veteran Resource Center offers students the opportunity to explore housing options and connect with other veterans. The website also lists resources for a food pantry, counseling services and university financial aid.