Can AI predict, and try to prevent, homelessness? L.A. is housing more people than ever, but an even greater number keep falling into homelessness. This first-of-its-kind prevention program calculates who seems most at risk for landing on the street.

Los Angeles is using AI to predict who might become homeless and help before they do

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JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Homelessness numbers in Los Angeles keep going up despite massive spending on the problem, so the county is trying a first-of-its-kind experiment in prevention. It is using artificial intelligence to predict who's most likely to land on the streets and then stepping in to help before that happens. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Last year, Dulce Volantin and her partner, Valarie Zayas, were getting desperate. They'd both been involved with gangs, had met in prison and were over-the-moon happy to have found love. But Dulce had bad bouts of mental illness. Valarie was hustling temp jobs. They'd slept in their car - then lost it - stayed too long with family. Dulce says they donated plasma and sold some of their clothes to pay for motels.

DULCE VOLANTIN: You know, you stay at a motel room for three days, it's more than $200. You know what I mean? And then, like, by the seventh day, you don't have anything in your pocket no more, no food, no this, not that. And it was a very long struggle.

LUDDEN: Eventually, Valarie says, they rented just a bed at a place on Venice Beach.

VALARIE ZAYAS: It's like a motel, but it's dormitory-style living. So we were there for a while.

LUDDEN: That's where they were when Dulce's mom told them she'd gotten a phone call, something about homelessness, she said, and a program to help you. Dulce was skeptical.

VOLANTIN: Sounds kind of shady, you know?

ZAYAS: Yeah, yeah.

VOLANTIN: I mean, I don't know. It doesn't sound real to me.

LUDDEN: But that call was real. It was from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, where Dana Vanderford helps lead Homelessness Prevention. A pilot program tracks data from seven agencies.

DANA VANDERFORD: Emergency room visits, crisis stabilization homes for their mental health, arrests.

LUDDEN: Also, addiction diagnosis and treatment, and who signs up for public benefits like food aid. Then, using machine learning, it comes up with a list of those thought to be most at risk for losing their homes. Vanderford says these are mostly people not part of any other prevention programs.

VANDERFORD: We have clients who have understandable mistrust of systems, have experienced generational trauma. Our clients are extremely unlikely to reach out for help.

LUDDEN: So 16 case managers reach out to them with letters and cold calls.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hello.

ELIZABETH JUAREZ: Hi. Good morning. Am I speaking to...

LUDDEN: Elizabeth Juarez is cheerful and patient. She knows it can take a minute to process what's happening. She explains the program, how it offers a case manager to work with people for four to six months and figure out how to spend 4 to $6,000 in aid. That's money not given directly but to third parties to cover bills.

JUAREZ: Things like rent, utilities, groceries, other kind of month-to-month expenses.

LUDDEN: It's a win just to connect with someone. The program never reaches about half the people on its lists, then some turn down the offer. They say others need it more. Some have already lost housing. Juarez says that's hard - to say, sorry, this is for prevention only. We can't help you. On this call, the man mentions he's renting from a relative and recently had a seizure. And yes, he'd like to sign up.

JUAREZ: Well, thank you so much. Have a great rest of your day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: All right. You, too.

LUDDEN: Juarez says rent isn't always the most urgent problem. She's used the money for payday loan debt, appliances, laptops and recently an e-bike as someone's main mode of transportation.

JUAREZ: We discuss, how is your living situation? So while somebody might be physically housed, is it safe in there? Do you have a bed? Do you have what you need in your home to thrive and feel stable?

LUDDEN: Los Angeles is housing more people than ever. And it's building lots more low-income housing. But it still can't keep pace with the ever-rising number who end up in tents, cars, shelters. Leaders here say prevention is the only way, and that includes going out to meet these people at risk.

FRED THEUS: What's up, Ricky?

RICKY BROWN: All right. How's everybody doing?

THEUS: Good, good.

BROWN: All right.

LUDDEN: Case manager Fred Theus greets a new client at his house. Ricky Brown is 65. He was a handyman who injured his back and had been getting by on his own - barely - until his ex-wife died a year ago. She'd been raising their three grandsons, so he took them in. Now there's bunk beds in the living room where 11-year-old Ziare is hanging out with his phone.

THEUS: How was your day?

ZIARE: I'm good.

THEUS: You're good? What'd you do today?

ZIARE: I did a lot of math.

THEUS: Math?

LUDDEN: Ricky says his daughter and her husband lost custody long ago because they're addicted to pills. It's been tough for him financially, especially after he and the boys got cut off from food aid. Why? He has no idea. Now he's in the hole on rent and utilities.

BROWN: I had a little money put away. But, boy, did I tell you if I went through it, you know, because these kids eat.

LUDDEN: Theus, the case manager, thinks the cutoff may be a paperwork snafu. Ricky also needs car repairs, and he really wants a two-bedroom for the boys. Getting a bigger place will be tough, though, given his low income from Social Security and odd jobs. Ricky says he's blessed with this program. But at night, it doesn't keep his mind from racing with a thousand worries.

BROWN: I might have to lose them or, you know, we're going to be on the street. That's the main thing I think about is the street or come home, ain't no lights on or something. You know, I stay worried about a lot of stuff every day.

LUDDEN: The ultimate goal of LA's prevention program is to keep people housed long term, and they don't know yet if it does. Will this little bit of time and money be enough? Are they targeting the right people, those who would actually end up on the streets but for this help? Janey Rountree heads the California Policy Lab at UCLA, which developed this AI prediction tool.

JANEY ROUNTREE: For example, here in Los Angeles, you might have 2 million people on public assistance, all of whom seem vulnerable, but only 1 to 2% of them will ever experience homelessness.

LUDDEN: In just over two years, the program has worked with 560 people, and most have stayed housed. But Rountree is doing a more formal, long-term study. She'll have results in 2026, which is when the program's funding runs out. Most of it's from pandemic aid. She hopes there will be a strong case that it should be scaled up and can be a model for other places that want to do this, like San Diego County.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi, baby.

VOLANTIN: Come in. Come in, you guys.

LUDDEN: For Dulce Volantin and Valarie Zayas it has meant a world of change.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Hi, baby.

LUDDEN: They show off their apartment and little dog Zoey to their former case managers. It's a cozy space with family photos and inspirational quotes on the walls.

VOLANTIN: Slowly but surely, we started decorating the place, because it came furnished.

LUDDEN: They were lucky to get a rare housing subsidy. Valarie says the stability helped her land a good job with the transit system.

ZAYAS: I have a clear head. I know she's OK. I don't have to worry about where our next meal is going to come from.

LUDDEN: Across the street is a park where people live in tents, and Dulce says it always makes her think.

VOLANTIN: We always help people out there. We give them whatever we have in our pockets, food, anything that we could because we know the situation. And it hurts our heart for people being out there.

LUDDEN: We know, she says, that without all that help appearing from nowhere, we could have been right out there with them.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMON, KANYE WEST AND JOHN LEGEND SONG, "THEY SAY")

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