2023 Excellence in Social Justice Reporting, Single Story finalist

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

About the Project

In Los Angeles, a secret is kept from people at the moment they are most vulnerable. When someone loses their home and is taken in by the homeless services authority, case managers must ask them a series of intensely personal questions—Do they use drugs? Do they owe someone money? Have they taken an ambulance recently?—all without revealing that they are being scored in a process that potentially decides whether or not they are provided a new home.

A Markup investigation, co-published with the Los Angeles Times, pulled back the curtain on this scoring system, confirming something that advocates for the unhoused had long suspected: The system has for years rated Black people experiencing homelessness as less vulnerable than White people, making them a lower priority for permanent housing.

We obtained more than 130,000 scoring surveys going back to 2016 via public records requests. The surveys are part of a scoring system known as the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool, or VI-SPDAT, and a variation of VI-SPDAT for younger adults, the Next Step Tool. In 2021, among adults under 25, 67 percent of White people scored in the highest priority group, compared with 46 percent of Black people. Among older adults that year, 39 percent of White people scored in the highest priority group, compared with 33 percent of Black people.

The scoring disparities came despite ample evidence that Black people in Los Angeles are particularly vulnerable to homelessness. They make up 9 percent of the county’s population but 30 percent of those without homes. A 2018 report from the homeless services authority attributed this to factors like “structural racism, discrimination, and implicit bias.”

We talked to case managers and housing “matchers” who described how central the scoring system is to housing decisions in Los Angeles. Experts explained how the stigmatizing questions in the system’s survey could lead to lower scores for Black people and provided evidence that the tool does a bad job at predicting the sort of vulnerability—to hospitalization or death—it is intended to measure.

We also explained how people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles could work around these flaws and pointed them to resources that could help them do so. We found a formerly unhoused person, Chantel Jones, willing to share with us her story of losing her first chance at permanent housing due to a low score.

We detailed our data analysis in an accompanying methodology story. We also published a story recipe to encourage journalists to investigate the impact of the scoring tool in dozens of other cities where it has been adopted.