The Long Beach Health & Human Services Department is collaborating with the University of Southern California (USC) Keck School of Medicine and the Milken Institute, a nonprofit think tank, to design technology that allows the city department to analyze which of its services to help the homeless are most effective.


According to Health & Human Services Director Kelly Colopy, the department tracks the services that are utilized through its homeless management information system, a database that helps connect homeless people to resources. The city funds 12 different nonprofit agencies in its continuum of care to provide support in areas such as mental health, employment and housing.


“We’re just in early conversation. It’s still very conceptual,” Colopy said of the research project. “We want to understand which types of services are most effective for different folks. Are there others we can provide that are more efficient and cost effective?”


Colopy said she has been discussing the project with USC and the Milken Institute “on and off” for the last six months. It is part of an initiative, “Building Smart and Healthy Cities,” launched by the Keck School’s Digital Health Lab in 2016 in partnership with the Milken Institute.


According to the lab’s director, Karthik Murali, the lab works on enabling new ideas and solutions in health care and public health. “One of our programs is building technology in support of our community partners, either inside or outside of USC,” Murali explained. “In the past several years, we’ve been focused a lot on the health care world. But we noticed that public health agencies and governments are also facing similar problems that we see in health care. So, we ask ourselves, ‘How can we take what we learned about in health care and at Keck and push it on towards the broader L.A. ecosystem?’”


The Digital Health Lab aims to address this question through the Building Smart and Healthy Cities initiative. According to Murali, the goal is to improve community wellness by examining the root causes of public health issues. “One of the major ones is homelessness,” Murali said. “Naturally, there was a big interest in how we could support cities as they tackle this problem.”


In addition to Long Beach, the lab is working with Los Angeles and Santa Monica to improve coordination among service providers. Murali explained that the research process includes understanding the unique needs of each city and tailoring solutions accordingly. “It’s not one-size-fits-all,” he said. “We have to do a deep dive within the city, understand the challenges they’re facing and work with them to see what the gaps are.”


Matt Horton, an associate director of the Milken Institute California Center, added that the initiative aims to expand the scope of available information beyond that provided by the county’s Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count and socio-economic demographics. He said the idea for the project was born out of a conversation with the Digital Health Lab on how cities could use data coordination to operate more efficiently.


“We wanted to know if there was a way that a collaborative of multi-actors focused on homelessness could work together with data to create platforms and case manager types of tools to allow cities to better understand the problem, look at it in real time and then inform leaders on solutions,” he said. Both Horton and Murali said they were impressed with the efforts of Long Beach in tackling homelessness.


Colopy, for her part, expressed excitement about the opportunity. She said that a study on the impact of the city’s homeless services and their cost has not yet been conducted. One of her goals is to conduct outreach to other community providers that do not receive funding through her department. One of these is the Homelessness Education and Response Team (HEART Unit) of the Long Beach Fire Department, which also connects those experiencing homelessness to resources.


“We would look at their data. For example, if the HEART team interacts with 30 people on the street in one week, what does that cost?” Colopy explained. “Are they being transported through medical calls? Do they have any involvement with the criminal justice system? What does that look like?” Colopy said she hopes the pilot technology to compile these statistics will be available in the next six months.


Horton said the organizations have not yet solicited any funding for the project. “We’re still very much in the data assessment phase,” he said, adding that, with all the technology now available, the timing is right for a project of this nature.


“With all the tools we have now and our ability to assess data more quickly, there’s no better time than now for us to look at stubborn challenges that cities face, through a new lens,” Horton said. “It’s a good time to look at [solutions for] cities to move forward that before now didn’t exist or weren’t in our toolbox.”