When Leah Post started using a tool meant to prioritize the most vulnerable people she worked with for a shot at housing, she noticed something was off.
People walking through the doors of her human services organization were disproportionately people of color.
But the assessment tool she was using, a mouthful called the Vulnerability Index — Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, or VI-SPDAT for short, regularly prioritized white clients.
Post, a community health manager at the nonprofit Neighborhood House, and 11 other homeless service providers signed a letter to the board of All Home, King County’s coordinating agency for homelessness services, this past spring and put their concerns in no uncertain terms.
“Reliance on this tool has increased the barriers that historically disenfranchised populations in King County — in particular, our Black, Latinx, and Native populations — face in accessing vital services,” they wrote.
A recent study using data from King County and three other regional systems has underlined Post’s and other providers’ warnings: Race can predict how you’ll score on the assessment, according to the analysis released earlier this month by human services trainers and consultants C4 Innovations — and white clients receive higher prioritization scores on average.
The findings didn’t surprise Michelle Merriweather, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle, located in Seattle’s historically Black Central District.
“There’s always a way to systematically marginalize us,” she said.
The problem isn’t necessarily limited to the Puget Sound, because King County isn’t alone in its use of the VI-SPDAT. In order to join the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care Program — the main way counties and cities get federal funding related to homelessness — local governments and their nonprofit partners are required to use a standardized assessment tool to prioritize people for housing.
The idea is that with limited housing resources, governments and agencies need a reliable method to determine which people to house first.
Increasingly, policymakers have chosen the VI-SPDAT to meet that need. The way it works: The higher the score on the VI-SPDAT, the higher the vulnerability, and therefore the higher the prioritization for housing.
But many of the questions the VI-SPDAT asks don’t reflect vulnerabilities communities of color are likely to say they experience, according to the C4 study.
Take, for example, the survey’s questions on substance use. Single, adult people of color are 62% less likely than whites to say that substance use led them to be kicked out of housing, or that they would expect substance use to be an issue with maintaining housing.
For people who already experience discrimination in other areas of life, these questions could be interpreted as ways to disqualify a person for housing, according to C4, rather than prioritize them based on need.
“Because the tool is given by a stranger, essentially, depending on the community and the privacy of the setting it would determine how someone answers those questions,” Post said. “[The VI-SPDAT] just doesn’t allow the space for any interpretation of answers.”
The recent findings follow another study from C4 published last year that analyzed pathways for people of color into homelessness. Black and Native people were more likely to become homeless than white people — and they faced unique vulnerabilities rooted in structural racism that led to homelessness, the study found.
Historic disparities, like the relative lack of financial capital in communities of color, contributed to people slipping into homelessness, according to the study.
In January’s annual homeless point-in-time count, Black people made up an estimated 32% of people experiencing homelessness, even though just 6% of the King County population is Black. American Indians or Alaska Natives made up 10% of the homeless population, though American Indians and Alaska Natives number less than 1% of the King County population overall.
“When you think about the wealth gap, it’ll be one thing that puts us out on the street,” Merriweather, of the Urban League, explained. “And you don’t have a mom, sister, aunt, cousin, friend you can call to cover you, because they’re struggling, too. Systematically, historically they’re struggling, too.”
King County’s All Home says it doesn’t just rely on the VI-SPDAT to prioritize people for housing. Its own racial equity analyses have recognized problems with the VI-SPDAT, too, said All Home Acting Director Kira Zylstra, and the agency has shifted to a model that relies more on case workers’ input.
“Even a year or two ago, we were much more reliant on the VI-SPDAT as an assessment tool,” Zylstra said. “We’re really trying to make sure it’s not the primary tool of prioritization.”
Beginning at the end of 2018, King County started to change its scoring formulas. To rank youth, young adults and families, the VI-SPDAT score is still included, but its weight has been nearly cut in half. Other factors, like whether there’s a history of foster care, are now included.
The county experimented with changing up its scoring for single adults, but reverted back to its old formula when the results didn’t reflect the people served. The county is still trying to figure out a new formula that works.
As part of the county’s shift to a new prioritization model, it’s also increasingly using case conferencing — a setting for providers to get together and identify people in need of housing — and diversion, one-time flexible funding to solve short-term issues so people can avoid getting mired in housing waitlists.
The county has applied for funding to have researchers develop a new assessment tool, according to King County’s homeless stability and services manager Hedda McLendon. But until then, the county is still using the VI-SPDAT to fulfill its HUD requirements.
It’s a work in progress.
“We by no means have solved the problem and it is not perfect, but we are regularly analyzing the data with community, with people with lived experiences and providers,” McLendon said.
Outside of King County’s prioritization model, its overall homelessness services system still has a long way to go. A King County audit published last year noted that the system’s level of disorganization, lack of housing and high housing costs have created long waits for housing and resulted in racial disparities.
Both the county and Seattle city government have embarked on merging their homelessness services in an attempt to make the entire system more efficient.
Post, of Neighborhood House, said that an effort is being made to reform the way clients are prioritized. But she hasn’t yet seen those changes reflected in her clients’ lives.
“Honestly, the system’s really broken,” Post said. “And the majority of our clients we unfortunately have to preface all of our VI-SPDAT screenings with, ‘The chances of getting into housing are very, very slim.”