New Reports Details Curious ‘Algorithm’ That Decides Who Gets Homeless Housing Based on How Much Trauma They’ve Endured

There are some pretty personal questions that go into deciding who gets supportive housing in this town, as a new report details the “algorithm” that sizes up how much trauma applicants have endured.    

It has been a well-established dynamic for years in San Francisco homelessness crisis that we do not have enough shelter beds, and because of this, hundreds and possibly thousands of people experiencing homelessness who want shelter cannot get it. So the city has to make some tough decisions on who gets one of a finite number of beds, and who does not.

Here in San Francisco, those decisions come down to a process called “coordinated entry,” which in part depends on your answers to a questionnaire. And on that questionnaire, you will be asked “In the last 12 months have you traded sex for a place to stay?”

“If you’ve got kids and you’re homeless and you’ve traded sex for money, you’re not going to tell them that you did that. No way,” University of Tennessee associate professor of social work Courtney Cronley tells SF Public Press in their new report on the questionnaire. “Black women are going to be more likely to fear that their children will be taken away from them if they report illicit behaviors, or if they report any sort of mental health challenges.”

We are just now learning of this question and others because of the SF Public Press obtained the questionnaire and scoring process — which determines who gets supportive housing, and who does not. The publication found some pretty intrusive questions, a macabre algorithm, and a system that provided incentives to surrender information that could put an applicant’s other benefits at risk.

“Through records requests, the San Francisco Public Press and ProPublica obtained the questions and scoring algorithm used in San Francisco’s coordinated entry questionnaire, which has never before been made public,” the Public Press explains. “The news organizations solicited feedback on that tool from front-line workers, academics and people experiencing homelessness. Some raised objections to how the questions were phrased. Others pointed out inequities in the scoring. And many more criticized the way it was administered, suggesting that the process itself — in which applicants are asked very personal questions by a stranger — might make it unlikely that already-distressed people would answer accurately.”

A few of the other questions include “Have you ever been sexually assaulted while experiencing homelessness?,” and, “Have you ever had to use violence to keep yourself safe while experiencing homelessness?” (In other words… you have to admit to a crime in order to help your odds of getting a shelter bed?) Another question asks, “How many times have you used crisis services in the past year (for example, mental health crisis services, hospital, detox, suicide prevention hotline)?”

“Black people are less likely to use formal health care systems,” Cronley told the SF Public Press. “They’ll reach out to family and friends and social support systems rather than going to the doctor. The doctor is not someone that they necessarily trust. These questions are biased towards persons who are white in our communities and biased against African Americans.”

But in addition to questions that could put the applicant at legal or social risk, there are also perverse incentives to exaggerate other aspects of one’s homelessness. Larkin Street Youth Services chief development officer Gayle Roberts told the SF Public Press that it is “common knowledge among social service providers that it [the coordinated entry system] is weighted heavily toward serving the needs of those who have experienced homelessness the longest.”

The city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing (DHHS) responds that they do need some sort of criteria to determine who needs help the most.  

“It’s really prioritizing scarce resources,” DHHS deputy director of planning and strategy Cynthia Nagendra told the publication. “There has to be some prioritization, unfortunately, until we have some housing resource for every single person.”

But the process certainly sounds cold and intimidating. “In San Francisco, all questions must be read by a trained staff member from one of the nonprofits that contract with the city to conduct the assessment,” SF Public Press explains. “The questions are pulled up on an iPad or a computer. A drop-down menu offers a prewritten set of answers to select from, and the score is automatically added up by the software.”

Again, “the score is automatically added up by the software.” So even for the city poorest and least technologically equipped populations, whether or not you have a roof over your head is still determined by a tech algorithm.

Related: Surge of Street Blight in the Mission Spurs Neighborhood Outcry; Action Plan Hopes to Remedy It [SFist]

Image: St. Vincent De Paul Society SF

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