The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 sparked discussion about racial inequality within and beyond the USA. At that time, public officials questioned the racial impact(s) of their policies. A new article in Housing, Theory and Society entitled “Making BIPOC Lives Matter: A Qualitative Analysis of Managerial Resistance to Racial Exclusions in US Homeless Systems” explores the way US homeless systems responded to racial justice protests against Floyd’s murder by reforming their allocation schemes. A “homeless system” is a network of organisations in a geographically-specified jurisdiction that delivers assistance to homeless households through a negotiated set of rules. This blog post draws insight from that article to demonstrate the salience of race relations to homeless allocation schemes and advocate for bespoke assessments that reflect the unique racial dynamics of a community.

Racial minorities are more likely than Whites to experience homelessness in Anglo countries (see Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2021; Bramley et al., 2022; Fowle, 2022; Homeless Hub, 2021). Although individual factors like mental illness may contribute to some cases of homelessness, structural disadvantages (i.e., economic inequality, housing discrimination, and institutional racism) put racial minorities at greater risk of it (Fowle, 2022). The organisation of some homeless systems may facilitate racial disparities. Most Anglo homeless systems assess clients before making service referrals. The Vulnerability Index–Service Prioritization Decision Tool (VI-SPDAT) is a popular assessment tool that originated in the USA but has diffused to other Anglo countries (see Clarke, Parsell, and Lata, 2021; OrgCode, 2016). It asks respondents about their homeless history, household income, emergency service usage, and mental/physical health (Grainger 2022). A risk assessment score is then calculated to make an allocation for housing assistance (Shinn and Richard 2022). Participants who score 0–3 are deemed ineligible for housing assistance, 4–8 are deemed eligible for temporary housing assistance (i.e., rapid rehousing), and 9–17 are eligible for permanent housing assistance (Petry et al. 2021). Recent studies suggest the VI-SPDAT’s questionnaire design (Cronley, 2020) and assessment process (Brown et al., 2018) deprioritise racial minorities for housing assistance by making them score less than Whites. This in turn makes communities of colour experience higher rates of homelessness by impeding access to housing assistance.

After George Floyd’s murder, managerial staff in the USA have used those studies to interrogate their homeless system. With my colleague Erin Gaede, I interviewed managerial staff from 28 US homeless systems (n = 35) in spring 2022. Most respondents had heard the VI-SPDAT was being criticised as racially biased. Several said they had observed those disparities in their homeless system:

“We were looking at the impacts of the VI-SPDAT tool and how people were being referred…[We] saw that people of colour were not scoring as high overall and were not being prioritised…” [Debbie]

Many respondents viewed this as an unintentional form of racism:

“We looked at our data, and were like, ‘This is not doing what it was intended to be doing.’ Not out of malice…It’s just not doing what it’s intended to be doing.” [Thomas]

Participants explained these disparities in various ways. Some blamed questionnaire items that ignore US race relations. Ted noted mistrust of the medical community amongst people of colour while critiquing an item about healthcare utilisation:

“A notable category in the VI-SPDAT is how many times one seeks medical care…It doesn’t fully capture the folks that are distrusting of the system…And we find a large proportion of those folks are likely to be people of colour.”

Adriana believed items that measured well-being disadvantaged Black men:

“The vast differences when you ask a Black head-of-household about their health and wellness compared to a White head-of-household is astronomical…It falls into that whole what is the norm for sharing that information. If you’re a Black man that’s head-of-household, I’ll not be answering that because that is a weakness.”

Another group of participants blamed assessors. Because most social workers in the USA identify as White (US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2022), racial minorities are often assessed by a White person. Marie thought this discouraged honest responses during VI-SPDAT screenings:

“People who identify as Black are scoring about one point lower than people who are identifying as White…They don't trust the person that is the asking the questions because they don't trust institutions…They don't trust folks that are there to help them because they've had a negative experience in the past…If the assessor is not a person that looks like them, then maybe there is concern.”

The previous excerpts illustrate the way participants used their understanding of US race relations to critique the VI-SDPAT’s impact on homelessness in their community. Respondents situated observed racial disparities in a macro-structural context by citing general tendencies (i.e., institutional mistrust or stigma management) that are associated in communities of colour across the USA.

Some participants shifted their critique from the national to local level by analysing how the racial dynamics of their community affected VI-SPDAT scores. Some respondents said racial critiques of the VI-SPDAT did not apply to their homeless system. Sophia argued the racial composition of her community rendered those critiques irrelevant:

“OrgCode is no longer updating [the VI-SPDAT] because of all of the complaints…What we experience is totally different…The majority of our population is Hispanic…What we experience as far as racial inequalities is a family being denied going into a shelter because they don’t speak Spanish…”

Rachel similarly did not observe racial disparities in her mostly White rural community:

“There has been some talk that it could be that it's not racially equitable…I don't see that in my population, but then we're predominantly largely a White community…”

This suggests the racial composition of a community may impact whether the VI-SPDAT generates disparities. Racial disparities from the VI-SPDAT were not observed in racially homogenous communities. Racial diversification of those communities could render their reliance on the VI-SPDAT problematic from an equity standpoint. That said, participants said the structure of local homeless systems sometimes interacted with race to deprioritise minorities with the VI-SPDAT. William, for example, criticised the housing inventory of his homeless system. The US Government allows homeless systems to choose the kind of housing assistance that they provide. William worked in a conservative area where permanent housing was associated with welfare dependency. Most housing providers in his system consequently offered short-term assistance (i.e., rapid rehousing) and refused to work with service recipients who scored high on the VI-SPDAT:

“A lot of [rapid rehousing] programmes [don’t] want number 12 and up…They want between six and ten…That’s normally a person who hasn’t been homeless for a very long time…It sounds like the higher number is going to get the housing, but the higher number normally was not getting the housing…”

This would be inconsequential if William’s system had enough permanent housing slots. When asked, “Were there racial disparities in who was getting scored higher,” William answered:

“Yes, just because some of those clients are from villages…Any actual village, it’s going to be an [indigenous] village…If you’re coming down here, and you’re trying to get help, you’re already going to be pretty high on that score.”

Proper use of the VI-SPDAT can thus unintentionally generate racial disparities in certain social contexts. If a system offers more rapid rehousing than permanent housing, then high acuity clients may get deprioritised by housing providers. Because racial minorities in William’s community scored higher than Whites on the VI-SPDAT and local service providers specialised in rapid rehousing, the tool helped re/produce racial disparities in homelessness. Data presented in this paragraph indicates the VI-SPDAT’s impact on racial equity is relative to the racial dynamics and/or policies of each homeless system.

Every homeless system is nested in a racialised global, national, and local context that changes over time. Our analysis implies homeless assessments should be tailored to the distinct racial dynamics of the country and community that a system is nested in. Whilst there are national differences in race relations, this analysis showed internal variation requires bespoke assessment tools and processes for the homeless system of each community. Despite the fact that our analysis was based on data collected from the USA, it has implications for homeless systems in other Anglo countries. Recall the VI-SPDAT has diffused throughout the Anglo world from the USA. Because racial dynamics vary between and within each country, achieving racial equity necessitates homeless assessments that reflect the unique racial dynamics of each community. This means service providers must exercise caution when importing assessment tools that were created elsewhere and annually check the racial impact(s) of their assessment tool to make sure it reflects the current dynamics of their community.


Australian Bureau of Statistics. 2021. “Estimating Homelessness: Census.” Available at

Bramley, Glen, Fitzpatrick, Suzanne, McIntyre, Jill, and Johnsen, Sarah. 2022. “Homelessness Amongst Black and Minoritised Ethnic Communities in the UK: A Statistical Report on the State of the Nation.” Available here.

Brown, Molly, Cummings, Camilla, Lyons, Jennifer, Carrión, Andrés, and Watson, Dennis P. 2018. “Reliability and Validity of the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool (VI-SPDAT) in Real-World Implementation.” Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless 27(2): 110–117.

Clarke, Andrew, Parsell, Camron, and Lata, Lutfun N. 2021. “Surveilling the Marginalised: How Manual, Embodied and Territorialised Surveillance Persists in the Age of ‘Dataveillance’.” The Sociological Review 69(2): 396–413.

Cronley, Courtney. 2020. “Invisible Intersectionality in Measuring Vulnerability Among Individuals Experiencing Homelessness–Critically Appraising the VI-SPDAT.” Journal of Social Distress and Homelessness 30(1): 1–11.

Fowle, Matthew Z. 2022. “Racialized Homelessness: A Review of Historical and Contemporary Causes of Racial Disparities in Homelessness.” Housing Policy Debate 1–28.

Grainger, Garrett L. 2022. “Seeing Like a Shadow State: An Ethnography of Homeless Street Outreach in the USA.” Urban Geography 1–21.

Homeless Hub. 2021. “Racialized Communities.” Available at

OrgCode Consultancy, Inc. 2016. “SPDAT.” Available at (accessed 31 August 2022).

Petry, Laura, Hill, Chyna, Vayanos, Phebe, Rice, Eric, Hsu, Hsun-Ta and Morton, Matthew. 2021. “Associations Between the Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool and Returns to Homelessness Among Single Adults in the United States.” Cityscape 23(2): 293–324.

Shinn, Marybeth and Richard, Molly K. 2022a. “Allocating Homeless Services After the Withdrawal of the Vulnerability Index–Service Prioritization Decision Assistance Tool.” American Journal of Public Health 112(3): 378–382.

Dr. Garrett L. Grainger is a Research Associate at Manchester Metropolitan University. Dr. Grainger’s research broadly analyses barriers and enablers of sustainable development. He has published research on homeless governance in Housing Studies; Housing, Theory and Society; Urban Geography; and Sociology Compass. His current research examines the mobilisation of far-right populists against sustainable development initiatives in Britain.

The Housing Studies Association (HSA) is a limited company registered in England and Wales under company number 13958843 at 42 Wellington Road, Greenfield, OL3 7AQ.
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