How We Use Data to Combat Racial Disparities in Homeless Housing

Written by: Victoria Ewing, Evaluator, Homeless and Housing

Understanding and Improving Coordinated Entry Prioritization

Over the past year, the Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) has partnered with C4 Innovations to analyze the racial equity impact of homeless housing prioritization tools used across the country. C4’s report, published in October 2019, found that one of the most commonly used tools – the Vulnerability Index – Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool or VI-SPDAT – results in higher average vulnerability scores for white people compared to people of color. Their conclusions reinforce DCHS evaluators’ ongoing efforts to understand and improve coordinated entry prioritization.

Looking at the Bigger Picture

King County’s Coordinated Entry for All (CEA) considers vulnerability scores, among other factors, when prioritizing households for the community’s limited housing resources. Thus, any disparities in scores may translate into negative impacts for people of color in their ability to connect with permanent housing and end their experience of homelessness.

DCHS evaluators have been monitoring the racial equity impacts of the VI-SPDAT since early 2018 and observed that average scores are higher for white households. While C4’s study compares whites to all people of color, our research digs deeper, showing that impacts are not uniform among races and ethnicities. Black, Native Hawaiian/Other Pacific Islander, and Asian households score lowest, while white, American Indian/Alaska Native, and multiracial households score highest.

Average Score: 9.1
Average VI-SPDAT scores within HMIS completed between September 1, 2018 and August 31, 2019. A higher score indicates that a household is “more vulnerable” according to the assessment. Assessments for families and transition age youth show similar trends, though score disparities are most pronounced among single adults.

In response to these alarming findings, we acted quickly. Using a community-driven process, CEA moved away from relying heavily on the VI-SPDAT for prioritization decisions in late 2018. While we work towards developing a valid and reliable tool grounded in racial equity, we have adopted an interim approach to identify the most vulnerable households – called “Interim Prioritization.”

The DCHS evaluation team analyzed response patterns for each existing assessment question and used this information to develop new, more equitable formulas. We dramatically reduced the weight of the VI-SPDAT score. Depending on population—single adults, youth and young adults, or families—we consider new factors. These include length of time homeless, history of foster care involvement, a pregnant household member, or an older child providing childcare for the family.

Using Results to Evolve More Equitable Approaches

CEA, community providers, and DCHS evaluators continuously monitor the results of this change in approach. For families and youth, we are successfully making progress towards the community’s racial equity benchmarks. However, we found that the new single adult approach was not hitting the mark; we went back to the drawing board, and a new approach for single adults is currently in development.

In future Cultivating Connections posts, we will tell the story of Coordinated Entry for All’s efforts to work toward a more equitable approach in each step of the process, as well as our evaluation team’s research into equity impacts of the other components of CEA beyond the assessment and prioritization tool, including how referrals are made and whether households successfully connect with housing programs.

For more information on Coordinated Entry for All and interim prioritization in Seattle-King County, please visit our website.