Racist Technology in Action: Racial disparities in the scoring system used for housing allocation in L.A.

In another investigation by The Markup, significant racial disparities were found in the assessment system used by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), the body responsible for coordinating homelessness services in Los Angeles. This assessment system is reliant on a tool, called the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritisation Decision Assistance Tool, or VI-SPDAT, to score and assess whether people can qualify for subsidised permanent housing.

The Markup, through an analysis of more than 130,000 VI-SPDAT surveys since 2016, revealed that White people received scores considered “high acuity” (or highly vulnerable) more often than Black people, despite Black people’s overrepresentation in LA’s unhoused population. This gap persisted year over year, with the disparity even more stark for people under 25. In 2021, 67% of unhoused White young adults scored high enough to be in the higher priority group, compared with 57% of Latino and 46% of Black young adults.

Bar chart showing that white young adults received the highest scores more oftehn than Black or Latino young adults

VI-SPDAT works by getting case managers to administer the surveys by asking dozens of questions (including highly personal ones) to unhoused people. Their responses are scored and added up to measure “vulnerability” on a 17-point scale.

Questions on the survey include whether the person has taken an ambulance recently, or spoken to the police after witnessing a crime, including how many times that has happened. If either happened four or more times in the past six months, one point is added on the 17-point scale. Other questions ask whether the person has been beaten up recently, takes “risky” actions such as sharing needles, or if the person owe others money. It is critiqued that the questions can be stigmatising, which makes Black people more hesitant to describe their history with doctors and police, leading to lower scores.

The forms that the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority use to assess the unhoused people

Furthermore, these people are unaware that they are being scored, and case managers are instructed not to reveal this scoring process, so that people will not feel alienated by being referred to as numbers. The higher the person’s vulnerability – as measured by the survey – the higher their chances are to obtain permanent housing. This vulnerability score is then matched with other criteria related to the buildings that are available. Therefore, despite the human (case manager) in this process, the VI-SPDAT scoring system fundamentally takes priority in the assessment.

The tool is poor at predicting outcomes and it has been compared to “flipping a coin in terms of predictability”. The result of this is that it disproportionately harms Black people, with many people who could be helped being overlooked.

See: L.A.’s Scoring System for Subsidized Housing Gives Black and Latino People Experiencing Homelessness Lower Priority Scores at The Markup.

Image by Blake Cale from the original The Markup piece.

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