Line Up Here – Giving Preference To Access Supportive Housing

A queue of elderly white women array across a street, directed by a younger woman
queue photo by Spiros Vathis is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
An unexpected treat for some: white women jump the queue for homelessness assistance.

Lineups to get into stores have become a fact of life with COVID restrictions. Our local grocery store gives preference to front line workers. All they need to do is show ID from where they work and they can go to the front of the line. This is a very simple example of managing a waiting list.

But what happens when waiting might mean the difference between life and death?

This is a question that Courtney Cronley decided to investigate. In this case, all of the people in “line” are homeless and seeking housing and supports to help them leave the streets and move to permanent housing.

Cronley teaches at the University of Tennessee and has centred her research on women experiencing homelessness. She knows that women who are homeless are at particular risk for violence and that waiting for services means the risk goes on for longer. She also knows that black people are over-represented in the homeless population. She thought that the combination of these factors would translate to put Black women to the head of the queue.

At the same time, evidence is mounting about the ways that discrimination is built into structures and systems. Do the systems to access homelessness services fight these biases or perpetuate them? To test this question, Cronley looked at how the service system gives preference to people seeking services. Recalling the grocery store example, instead of a work “ID” card, ID for homeless people seeking services is a vulnerability assessment called VI-SPDAT. A high score on the assessment means you are more vulnerable and therefore eligible for services ahead of someone with a lower score.

Cronley compared the vulnerability scores of 1,025 people. Black women ranked third, even though other available evidence suggests they should have the highest scores. This placed Black women at a lower priority for services than White women and White men. In the context of this study, it means that the VI-SPDAT was likely to rank 933 White people ahead of Black women in the line for service.

Cronley cautions that with records from people in one county, it’s too early to say the VI-SPDAT scores are a trend, but it certainly suggests that there are built in biases that perpetuate discrimination. It also begs further investigation.

Many homeless serving agencies in the U.S. must use VI-SPDAT as a condition of funding. As Courtney points out, although the VI-SPDAT is widely used, its validity has not been tested. As well, tools are available that have been tested. Shouldn’t they be used instead?

To read more about this interesting research and discussion, check out the Journal of Social Distress and Disease: Invisible Intersectionality In Measuring Vulnerability Among Individuals Experiencing Homelessness – Critically Appraising The VI-SPDAT

And for people who may be put off by academic literature, there is also a clear summary of Cronley’s research at the homeless hub: Racial and Gender Bias in the VI-SPDAT

Cronley’s research adds another dimension to an earlier post about the use of assessments in with Indigenous populations. Try: Ranking By Numbers Gets In The Way Of Homelessness Services

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