Social workers, tech experts and community leaders note new policy and service initiatives from city, county and state governments; BY Ron Mackovich, USC News, 

Tech, hackathons, housing and empathy were among the approaches to homelessness discussed Wednesday at an event that included service providers, law enforcement officers, community leaders and people who have been homeless.

Panel on stage

Experts from different fields presented ideas. (Photo/Jason Wallis)

“We have the best playing field we’ve ever had to make things better for every human being in L.A. County,” said Marilyn L. Flynn, dean of the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, noting a number of new policy and service initiatives from city, county and state governments designed to help end homelessness.

USC Trustee Dworak-Peck was on hand for the forum titled “Wild Ideas and Innovations: A Radical Conversation About Homelessness” at Town and Gown. Faculty from the USC Price School of Public Policy and the USC Marshall School of Business also took part.

“There’s a tremendous amount of energy and creativity in this room,” said Brenda Wiewel, director of USC Initiatives to Eliminate Homelessness. “This is a topic that’s finally getting the attention it deserves. I don’t see how we can have prosperity and social justice with so many people suffering from housing insecurity.”

Not the only one

“I’m probably not the only person in this room who’s been homeless,” said Gabriel Crenshaw, a psychologist and lecturer at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

Crenshaw, who is also a TV personality, talked about the mental siege he suffered while living in his car in Manhattan Beach.

I started to lose my grip on reality.

Gabriel Crenshaw

“I started to lose my grip on reality,” he said. “I was exposed to environmental concerns you don’t think about when there’s a roof over your head. Homeless people appear to be crazy. Impulsive, disruptive behavior is their way of communicating fear. Once we understand that, the urgency to do something about it kicks in.”

Crenshaw, who cited research showing more than a quarter of people living on the streets suffer from mental illness, said the best solution is housing. He also emphasized empathy.

“People aren’t interested in what you know until they know you care,” Crenshaw said. “I don’t have to say a word. They walk into the room and feel support and empathy. The neural pathway has already changed.”

The tech approach

Technological solutions to homelessness were brought up by a several speakers. Flynn spoke of houses that could be built by 3-D printers, while SoCapTech CEO Ellen Sloan proposed a hackathon centering on homelessness.

“Everybody in this room has a smart phone,” Sloan said. “But people in nonprofits are stuck with email, phones, paper forms and legacy software that’s a rat’s nest.”

Sloan believes nonprofits serving homeless populations could adopt free or inexpensive digital platforms to collect and share information, smoothing the process for homeless people seeking services.

Denise McCain-Tharnstrom, who also attended the forum, developed the WIN (What I Need) app to help homeless people find services. She pointed to research by USC Associate Professor Eric Rice that shows a majority of homeless people in Los Angeles have access to cellphones.

We’re working with USC to explore what it would look like … to connect homeless and hungry students with services.

Denise McCain-Tharnstrom

“We’re working with USC to explore what it would look like to incorporate university facilities into our app, to connect homeless and hungry students with services,” McCain-Tharnstrom said. “Each college has unique services that are available for their students. We want the students to know everything that’s available to them.”

A partnership to end homelessness

The “Wild Ideas” event is part of a university-wide effort at USC to end homelessness that includes research and partnerships with community-based organizations.

An interdisciplinary team of USC experts is analyzing data from the 2017 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count. The team is working with the Los Angeles Homeless Services authority to recommend solutions.

Wiewel, who has dedicated herself to programs for chronically homeless persons, believes team research, partnerships and forums like “Wild Ideas” are critical to ending homelessness.

“We really want this to be a collaborative process; we don’t want to talk at people,” Wiewel said. “We’re hoping this will stimulate knowledge and ideas to give us a new perspective and help us frame what we’re doing in new ways.”

The event was sponsored by the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s Department of Adults and Healthy Aging chaired by Suzanne Wenzel.

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On 1.04.17, Our Children LA Founder and President, Dr. Denise McCain-Tharnstrom,  was honored to accept the Rotarian STAR Humanitarian of the Year Award for Knowledge Sharing. Dr. McCain received this award for her visionary leadership and development of the WIN mobile application, which uses mobile technology to connect homeless and resource insure youth/adults to much needed services.

The Knowledge Sharing ward recognizes individuals or teams who have, through scientific or technological discoveries, significantly improved our ability to share knowledge for human benefit or who have made scientific or technological advances in order to improve or save lives. Winners of the STAR award were selected by an outside panel of distinguished advisors: Dr. David A Bearden, Dr. Joel W Burdick, Dr. John F. Raffensperger, Dr. Phillip R. Troyk, Dr.  Marie Csete, Dr. Sylvia Whitlock, The Honorable Lance A. Ito, and Dr. William C. Patzert.  The Rotary Club of Sierra Madre, embodying the pursuit to serve humanity, offers the Rotary Humanitarian STAR Awards to honor and bring to light achievements that support, advance and inspire humanitarian accomplishments.

The WIN app, developed by Dr. McCain and the OCLA team, leverages youth and adults trust in technology, the availability of free internet and cell phone providers offer of free Lifeline phones to homeless or low income individuals, to empower homeless, hungry and vulnerable populations to locate the supportive services they need.



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Wood, J. L., Harris III, F., & Delgado, N. R. (2016). Struggling to survive – striving to succeed: Food and housing insecurities in the community college. San Diego, CA: Community College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL).

Search Terms: Student homelessness, food insecurities, housing, community colleges

In December of 2016 the Community College Equity Assessment Lab (CCEAL) released findings that approximately 1/3 of California community college students are attending classes while experiencing the threat of homelessness and housing instability and 12% are hungry and concerned about whether and when they will have their next meal. The report is among the first research efforts to show who is adversely exposed to food and housing insecurities in the California higher education system.

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In the 2010-2011 school year, approximately one million or 2 percent of all students nationwide were identified as homeless. This study examines state and school district implementation of the EHCY support program and found that transportation, school supplies, tutoring and supplemental instruction accounted for the largest expenditure for EHCY funds.

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California Homeless Youth Project, Voices from the Street: California’s Homeless Students: A Growing Population

Shahera Hyatt, Brynn Walzer, and Patricia Julianelle, California Research Bureau

Search Terms: education, homeless students, California, policy, data collection

Summary: Children experiencing homelessness encounter many obstacles to their education. This brief identifies what we know about the size of California’s homeless youth population in the educational sytem and provides statewide data on the numbers of homeless youth by county and legislative district, obtained from the U.S. Department of Education’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth Data Collection Summary for the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years. The brief concludes with recommendations for improving educational success for homeless students and suggests ways to increase state and local capacity for data collection.

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