A key measure of whether or not people experiencing homelessness get housing is weighted in ways that sometimes advantage White people, according to a new report.
The commonly used metric, called VI-SPDAT (the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool), is meant to assign homeless people a “vulnerability score” that helps service providers to provide resources to people who need them most. However, despite the fact that people of color are disproportionately represented in the homeless population and the low-income population, VI-SPDAT can be more likely to score White people in a way that prioritizes them for housing.
That’s because VI-SPDAT was created using data primarily from a White, male homeless population, and the outcomes reflect that population is best served by it, said Catriona Wilkey, deputy director of research and evaluation with C4 Innovations, the group that conducted the study. The study is based, in part, on data from King County and nearby Pierce County.
“There’s not a lot of supporting literature to say it’s an effective tool of assessing folks of color,” Wilkey said.
The study broke down 16 subscales in the VI-SPDAT, looking at whether or not race was a predictor in a higher score. In 11 of the 16 subcales, being White made a person more likely to score more highly when used to evaluate a homeless client using the test. Only three tilted in favor of people of color, Wilkey said.
“The way that we are framing this is that it’s ok for [POC] to experience different vulnerabilities. Their experience and vulnerabilities are very different than those for White people,” Wilkey said.
VI-SPDAT is not supposed to be a standalone metric to funnel people into housing, but it is one of the most common evaluation tools, said Daniel Zavala, communications director at Building Changes, the nonprofit that funded the study.
“The questions themselves are intended to be worded objectively. What they pick up is another question,” Zavala said.
VI-SPDAT is an “evidence-informed” tool and is one of the most commonly used metrics to evaluate people experiencing homelessness. However, it suffers from a reliance on people experiencing homelessness to fully communicate mental and behavioral health issues and there has been limited testing of its reliability. A 2015 HUD report “cautioned [Continuums of Care] regarding the limited evidence backing this and other tools,” the report says.
Broken down by race, the results of the study may not seem huge, but they do fall in the range of “statistically significant” among single adults, according to the the report. The results were not statistically significant when looking at families experiencing homelessness.
The VI-SPDAT scoring method is meant to be one among many metrics to demonstrate a person’s need and can be modified. Part of the point of this research is to get people to take a more critical look at a measure in which they put a lot of stock.
“I think, for us, what we hope to spur from this is continuums of care across the country. Take this as an opportunity to see how our practices disproportionately impact POC in a ways that we don’t see,” Wilkey said.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Read the full October 23 - 29 issue.
© 2019 Real Change. All rights reserved.| Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice since 1994. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.