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Study finds racial disparity in way King County serves homeless

A homeless camp in Seattle's Georgetown neighborhood. (KIRO Radio, Carolyn Ossorio)

A new study points to significant racial bias when it comes to accessing services for King County’s homeless population.

Seattle, County homeless response paralyzed by bureaucracy

The report investigates a system used in King County (and four other counties) called the “Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool” (VI-SPDAT). Essentially, the system is a 27-question interview issued to homeless people, that rates respondents on a scale of 0 to 17 to assess the need for assistance. People rated 8 and above are recommended for permanent supportive housing.

Among the findings was that homeless people of color and indigenous people “receive statistically significantly lower prioritization scores on the VI-SPDAT than their White counterpart.”

“Race is a predictor of receiving a high score … where being white was a protective factor for single adults,” it reads.

Digging into the actual content of the VI-SPDAT, the report found that the assessment itself was largely to blame for the disparity, finding that white homeless surveyed were more likely to respond “yes” to eight out of 16 components. People of color were more likely to respond “yes” to just three.

The study was conducted by C4 Innovations and released this October. It didn’t just look at the Seattle area, but also Multnomah County (Portland, Ore.), Pierce County, and Roanoke County in Virginia.

Ultimately, it recommended that King County and others counties using the VI-SPDAT consider other methods of evaluating the needs of the homeless population, and expanding the way it assesses those needs to be more inclusive.

“Communities should asses whether/which contextual factor … may be contributing to and confounding disparate impacts for (people of color) and take actionable steps to address them,” it advised.

Coalition plans to end chronic homelessness in King County in 5 years

As SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield noted, King County is actually working toward this solution already. ”

“It is already undertaking a broad re-assessment of how it prioritizes people for services, after recognizing that its current system was producing racial inequities,” he described.

That includes a new tool that will be specifically designed to tackle this issue, weighing a variety of other factors that are less affected by race.

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