When a stranger reached out to Dulce Volantin with an offer of financial help, she was initially skeptical. However, her life and that of her partner, Valarie Zayas, were at a precarious juncture. They were renting a bed in a dormitory-style living arrangement on Venice Beach, Los Angeles, having met in prison years earlier and found love after escaping involvement with gangs. Dulce’s battle with mental illness had led to hospitalizations, while Valarie juggled temporary jobs to supplement Dulce’s disability aid.
Their journey had included sleeping in their car, staying with family for an extended period, and resorting to donating plasma and selling clothes to afford motels. But on the seventh day, they found themselves with nothing in their pockets. Against her initial doubts, Dulce returned the stranger’s phone call, which turned out to be a genuine and life-changing offer. The call was from the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, part of a unique experiment aimed at curbing homelessness, which continues to rise despite substantial spending.
Los Angeles, while housing more people than ever and constructing additional low-income housing, struggles to keep pace with the escalating numbers of people finding themselves in cars, tents, or shelters. The county initiated a pilot program that employs artificial intelligence (AI) to predict who is most at risk of becoming homeless, enabling timely intervention. The program gathers data from seven county agencies, including emergency room visits, mental health crisis care, substance abuse disorder diagnoses, arrests, and public benefits sign-ups. Using machine learning, it identifies individuals at the highest risk of losing their homes who are not part of other prevention programs.
Dana Vanderford, who leads the department’s Homelessness Prevention unit, explains that many clients have a deep mistrust of systems due to generational trauma, making them unlikely to seek help. To address this, the program assigns 16 case managers to reach out to individuals on the high-risk lists through letters and phone calls.
However, reaching people can be challenging, as contact information often changes when lives are unstable. Some individuals may be facing eviction or dealing with domestic violence. Others may already have lost their housing, disqualifying them from the prevention program. Additionally, skepticism among potential recipients can lead to a reluctance to accept assistance. The program often has to make multiple attempts to connect with individuals.
Despite these challenges, the program aims to provide case management and financial aid to help those at risk of homelessness. Case managers work with clients for four to six months, assisting in the allocation of aid ranging from $4,000 to $6,000, which does not require repayment. The funds are typically directed toward rent, utilities, groceries, or other monthly expenses to prevent jeopardizing public benefits.
While housing assistance is a common need, case managers consider the specific circumstances of each individual. They have used the funds for various purposes, including paying off payday loan debt, purchasing appliances, laptops, and even e-bikes for individuals with mobility challenges.
The program addresses immediate concerns while also assessing living conditions and overall stability to ensure that individuals are equipped to thrive in their homes. Despite the challenges, the program strives to make a lasting difference in people’s lives.
Ricky Brown, a 65-year-old retired handyman, is one such client in the prevention program. He went on disability after a back injury and was barely making ends meet in a one-bedroom apartment. Following his ex-wife’s sudden passing, he took in his three grandsons, straining his finances further. Case manager Fred Theus helps him plan, identifying needs such as car repairs, overdue rent and utilities, and restoring food aid for the boys. The program aims to secure a two-bedroom place for them to create a safe and suitable living environment. However, housing vouchers are in high demand, and securing one is no guarantee.
The program has worked with 560 people in just over two years, with data showing that the majority have remained housed. A formal long-term study is underway to determine the program’s effectiveness and whether it targets the right individuals who would otherwise become homeless. The study results are expected in 2026, coinciding with the program’s funding expiration. If successful, the program could serve as a model to prevent homelessness and provide much-needed evidence of effective interventions.
Preventing homelessness is a complex challenge, and Los Angeles’ proactive approach may offer insights into effectively addressing the issue. While housing vouchers have shown success in keeping families housed, targeting those at the highest risk for homelessness may yield the most significant impact.
For Dulce Volantin and Valarie Zayas, the program has been life-changing. They secured a subsidized apartment with on-site case management, providing stability and support for Dulce’s mental health needs. The newfound stability also enabled Valarie to secure a good job with the transit system. Their journey from skepticism to stability highlights the potential of innovative programs like this to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those at risk of homelessness.
By Impact Lab