A million-dollar gift from Daniel J. Epstein is funding a research project to understand what life is really like for veterans on the streets of Los Angeles, and what could help get them into permanent housing.
Dan Epstein is an engineer by training, a solver of problems. One of his latest ventures is taking aim at a problem that has defied years of attempted solutions: veteran homelessness.
Epstein has funded a $1 million study to work with veterans on the streets of Los Angeles and learn from them what challenges they face. The project is a joint effort by RAND and the University of Southern California, two institutions with a record of advancing solutions for homelessness in America.
“Over the years, I think there’s been a failure to recognize and appreciate the sacrifices veterans have made for the country,” Epstein said. “My hope is that researchers will identify what these homeless veterans really need. It’s not just that they don’t have a place to live; it’s everything that goes along with it. We have to get beyond just finding them a room.”
Not long ago, the federal government, led by the Department of Veterans Affairs, thought it could end homelessness among veterans by 2015. The numbers have improved, but the latest count still found more than 37,000 veterans living on the streets, in shelters, or in temporary housing. Nearly one in ten of them lives in Los Angeles County.
Epstein’s gift is funding a three-year research project to understand what life is really like for homeless veterans, and what could help get them into permanent housing. Researchers are working to recruit 25 unsheltered veterans, provide them with smartphones, and survey them about their experiences every week. They hope to get an unprecedented look at the factors that put veterans at risk for homelessness, and the barriers that keep them there.
“When I considered providing support, I identified veterans and their needs and decided to try to be helpful in that regard,” Epstein said. “Hopefully, when it gets published, it will be useful throughout the country.”
Epstein has made a career out of thinking big.
He served in the Army after high school, then earned a degree in industrial and systems engineering from the University of Southern California. One of his first jobs was helping to build the massive superstructure that housed Saturn rockets in the swamplands of southern Florida.
Soon after, he pursued real-estate development and worked his way up to vice president of the American Housing Guild, a residential development firm. In 1975, he founded ConAm Management Corporation, now one of the largest, privately owned apartment development and management companies in the country.
He has given millions of dollars to USC through his Epstein Family Foundation. The university recently named its sports medicine center in his honor. He also has supported a veterans center at California State University San Marcos. After hearing about service members forced to use a food bank in his hometown of San Diego, he also started donating to an initiative to help them.
His donations to RAND started with a $1,000 gift a few years ago—“little did I know what that would lead to,” he said. More recently, he provided funding for a podcast series about RAND research on veterans issues, “Veterans in America.”
“RAND has an expertise that a lot of other institutions don’t have,” he said. “It leads the way. It goes without question that RAND is at the top of the food chain in terms of what it can bring to an assignment. When there are challenges that need studying and need thoughtful solutions, RAND’s capabilities are really unequaled.”