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Student surveyors help elevate the stories of L.A. County’s unhoused population

  • Students

Since 2017, the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work has organized the data collection, analysis and reporting for the Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA). For three months of the year, teams of three or four trained surveyors depart from the USC campus every day in the early hours of the morning, crossing the county to administer a 58-question survey to unhoused individuals. The opportunity to experience the inner workings of the L.A. Homeless Count is unique to the school and affords students hands-on training in addressing homelessness.

Recently, Amy Stein became the project administrator for USC’s involvement in the homeless count, and has fallen in love with the challenge of the process and the unhoused communities with which she works. Stein recruited a mixed group of 30 surveyors, including Master of Social Work (MSW) students, undergraduate students from multiple schools at the university, those with lived experiences of being unhoused and individuals who serve on local neighborhood councils or work in the community. The surveyor team trains at USC, partaking in lectures and discussions with visiting professors and the data analysis team to better understand the task of data collection and the role their findings play locally and nationally.

Interacting directly with unhoused individuals

The data collected from the surveys will help the county understand how many individuals are currently unhoused, but also who they are, their needs and their experiences. There are questions in the survey about benefits, systems involvement, employment, movement around the county and mental and physical health.

“We touch upon every aspect of what it means to have needs in our society,” Stein said.

Through LAHSA, the county uses the data to petition for funds at the federal and state level, then local groups use it to understand how homelessness plays out in their neighborhoods to address needs on the ground. “They meet those needs, we hope, through housing, first and foremost, mental health services, substance use services, health services, food, showers, improving their shelter system, and understanding who they're serving in their shelter system,” Stein said.

For the student surveyors, it is practical experience and exposure to the backgrounds of unhoused individuals in Los Angeles. The students learn how to build a rapport with an unhoused individual within minutes, fine tuning their approach to build trust so the individual feels comfortable sharing their story. The demographic survey process provides students with a very clear example of the work they will perform in their careers addressing the critical issue of homelessness.

Anna Darzins, an MSW student on the survey team, is the director of a women’s shelter in Sacramento. While she has a lot of experience working with homeless outreach, she jumped at the chance to come to Los Angeles for additional training.

“I wanted to learn about a different community and understand some of the challenges in L.A. County, and some of the similarities and differences in our service networks and the communities themselves,” Darzins said. “I think it really gives an opportunity to refine our skills in a way that we wouldn't be able to otherwise."

Stein explains that one of the most important elements the surveyors are providing is human interaction with this population, and that aspect is so energizing for many on the team. The surveyors are trained to be direct and efficient when administering the survey while also communicating empathy and kindness.

“They're having in-depth conversations with folks that are often overlooked, not accounted for, not recognized, not asked about themselves,” Stein said.

MSW student Jensy Henriquez has worked in homeless outreach for the past three years. In addition to her full days on the survey team, her current internship for the MSW degree is with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Homeless Outreach and Proactive Engagement (HOPE) team where she connects with unhoused people at Metro stations. She feels she has gained invaluable insight on the reasons behind why people experience homelessness, and having this opportunity as a student for direct interaction has solidified her desire to continue working with the homeless population after she receives her MSW.

“This is my passion,” Henriquez said. “This is where my heart is.”

From street to surveyor

Stein hired Donna McKinney for the survey team through Chrysalis, a nonprofit that serves anyone navigating barriers to finding and retaining employment. A year ago, McKinney was sleeping on the streets of Skid Row in Los Angeles. One night she saw a light at her feet and realized someone had set her tent on fire while she was inside it. Realizing she was lucky to be alive, she decided that night to seek help for her substance use and get off the streets.

McKinney went to LAHSA, and within the hour she was receiving the help she needed. Through hard work and coaching from Chrysalis, her self-esteem and emotional health improved, and she learned how to better interact socially with others. As a surveyor, she can relate to everyone she talks to and they are willing to talk with her.

Stein says McKinney is one of the strongest and most effective surveyors on the team, and wanted surveyors with lived experiences of homelessness to work alongside the students. Stein believes building relationships with and learning from those who have been unhoused, or are currently in nonstable housing, broadens students’ understanding of and sensitivity for this population.

Likewise, McKinney feels she benefits from the time spent with the students. The surveyors spend more than seven hours together each day. McKinney is currently enrolled in community college and the students with whom she works teach her how to focus on priorities for her life.

“I'm glad to have a roof over my head, be able to pay the rent, have a space where I can rest my mind,” McKinney said. “I'm safe. I can do my homework, and just be still.”

Stein knows that practicum placements with the homeless population require a high level of commitment and focus from the students, and she views her responsibility as providing the students with the best experience possible.

“I want to give them a good experience, a wonderful experience,” Stein said. “And prepare them to see whatever job may come their way with this population as viable and rewarding.”

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