Wrong Turns On The Road To Shelter In San Francisco

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) publishes a map with information about homelessness. The map indicates 161,548 people were homeless in California on any given night in 2020. HUD’s mapsite also has a link to connect people who are experiencing homeless with support1.

A system called co-ordinated entry2 has been set up. It matches people who are homeless with suitable housing (when it becomes available). Nuala Bishari from San Francisco Public Press, reports on how coordinated entry is working in San Francisco.

Bishari starts with the experience of one woman who was pregnant with twins and homeless. The twins died during childbirth, which meant that she no longer qualified for family housing. It also meant re-applying through coordinated entry for support. Though she was indeed homeless, she didn’t score enough points to be eligible for support.

Coordinated entry ranks people’s need for support based on a standard set of questions. It uses an algorithm3 to give a score to each person who is seeking help. HUD encourages the use of the VI-SPDAT assessment tool.4, but allows local creation of coordinated entry programs. San Francisco has developed its own.

Bishari interviewed front-line workers, academics and people experiencing homelessness during her investigation. She highlights some of the challenges in the rating system that determines who is at the top of the list.

For example, points are assigned based on how many times people have been hospitalized or visited hospital emergency departments. More visits, more points. Using this question puts Black people at a disadvantage. They are far less likely to access hospital services than white people5.

Bishari’s research leads her to conclude that coordinated entry in San Francisco deters somecpeople from applying at all. Read more at San Francisco Public Press: San Francisco Rations Housing by Scoring Homeless People’s Trauma. By Design, Most Fail to Qualify.

What happens to people who qualify for coordinated entry? Recently, we reported that California has been adding to its supply of supportive housing6. Though not without its difficulties, at least more housing is coming on stream. Earlier this year, Bishari interviewed people who had enough points to qualify for coordinated entry, but were yet to be placed.

She also interviewed supportive housing providers who had vacant units and were waiting for the coordinated entry system to assign a person to fill the vacancy. City officials confirmed that there were still glitches in the system that linked qualified tenants to spaces. You can read her full account in San Francisco Public Press: In San Francisco, Hundreds of Homes for the Homeless Sit Vacant

Although these stories are from San Francisco, they are well worth reading for any jurisdiction that is using a coordinated entry system to assess and rank vulnerability.

We’re giving the final word to a housing worker who is working with an 86 year-old woman that has been homeless for 14 years but didn’t generate enough points to qualify for coordinated entry:

[Algorithmic decision-making] “moves us away from the absolute necessity of human judgment and human interaction in human services.”


  1. HUD’s map is here: California Homelessness Statistics
  2. For more about coordindated entry, try: Is Coordinated Entry To Homelessness Services Possible?
  3. You can read more in Wikipedia: Algorithm 
  4. For more on VI-SPDAT, try: Line Up Here – Giving Preference To Access Supportive Housing 
  5. Lest we think this is solely a personal decision, here is a post by some conscientious researchers in the U.S. health system that is dedicated to serving people who are homeless. The researchers found out that despite their best intentions, their systems were discouraging Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour from accessing their services. Try: Helpful Steps To Dismantle Racism In Services For Homeless People
  6. Try: California’s Rapid Housing Initiative For Homeless People – How’s It Working Out?