This blog post introduces reflections from the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) on the current use of assessment tools among homelessness service providers in Canada. In the near future, we plan to engage in dialogue with communities to better understand their needs and desires regarding assessment tools and processes. In the meantime, we invite you to participate in a survey that will further inform our thinking about current assessment tool use, issues, and ideas for moving forward.

Assessing Assessment Tools

Assessment tools have become commonplace in communities across Canada as a method for allocating services and resources to people experiencing homelessness. For some communities, utilizing a standard assessment tool is required as a condition to receive funding. Assessment tools and approaches to allocating services and resources have become a matter of contention, particularly since the introduction of Housing First in Canada, as some communities require the use of a tool to prioritize individuals for Housing First services based on vulnerability.

Most recently, questions about the reliability and validity of one of the most commonly used assessment tools have come to light, as well as concerns about the gender and racial biases embedded in these tools. These findings have sparked ethical conversations on the use of assessment tools more broadly. First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities have also highlighted the biases of assessment tools currently used in the homelessness system. First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples have noted that the tools do not provide an accurate representation of their needs. Furthermore, they may (re)traumatize individuals from these communities.

As communities bring awareness to these concerns and contribute to emerging knowledge of issues associated with assessment tools, we anticipate more discussion and questions will arise.

“As the U.S. has shifted to a quantitative assessment approach to housing allocation decisions within homeless services, communities ought to consider homelessness and vulnerability through an intersectional lens in order to better account for how multiple positions of disadvantage reflect vulnerabilities differently. Without doing so, vulnerability assessments are subject to bias.” - Cronley, 2020

As a result of these recent discussions and questions, we have engaged in a reflective process, landing on the question, “What is our role in this?” To date, we have taken the lead in reviewing assessment tools used in the homelessness sector, such as this table of homelessness-specific tools created by the former Housing First Assessment Taskforce. The Taskforce used a set of guidelines developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban development to vet the assessment tools. As part of these guidelines, consideration was given to whether the tool had been assessed for its reliability and validity. The Taskforce’s review found only a few of the tools had reliability and validity assessments conducted by independent, external researchers. Having tools with high reliability and validity are vital as it indicates that a tool will provide consistent and accurate assessments. Reliable and valid tools are essential in the homelessness sector since we know that the scores derived from tools are given significant weight in allocating housing, services and resources to people experiencing homelessness.

A Role for Assessment Research

We remain committed to ongoing research on the role of assessment tools in the homelessness sector. This includes understanding the appropriateness of using assessment tools in the community and applying an equity lens throughout the process. We recognize that we need to work quickly to understand the role and appropriateness of assessment better nationwide.

Responding to Community Needs, Interests, and Opportunities

People with lived experience, CoCs (Continuums of Care), and providers of homeless services hold the solution to addressing the inherent biases with current Coordinated Entry Systems. More research is needed to develop and test alternatives to assessment tools...Significant efforts should be made to engage people with lived experience in all equity work. - Wilkey et al, 2019

We are committed to engaging in meaningful dialogue and collaboration with communities, stakeholders, and especially those with lived and living experiences of homelessness to determine the best way forward concerning assessment. We understand we cannot resolve this on our own. Rather than present a new alternative, we need to work with communities to figure out the necessary tasks, steps, and principles required to do this work. Another question we have asked ourselves is, “What are the principles or values that ought to guide our efforts in matching people to the services and resources they need?” As communities seek new opportunities and solutions for their assessment processes, they are presented with limited alternatives to the current status quo. At the same time, we are encouraged by the opportunity to pause, reflect, listen and deeply consider our next steps.

Equitable assessment processes that are culturally responsive to the diversity of people in Canada are vital. Yet, biases are currently embedded in assessment tools. As a result, processes have led to inequitable outcomes, especially for Black women and First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Peoples. This is also likely the case for other groups of racialized people. As we seek to advance in our work around best practices for assessments used in the homeless and housing sector, understanding equity and identifying culturally responsive approaches will be central to our research.

“...the Indigenous experience of homelessness is unique to Westernized conceptions of homelessness...this cannot be captured in an assessment tool.” - Bomberry et al, 2020

The Way Forward

To begin the process of furthering our understanding of the current limitations of assessment in the context of Canada and identifying equitable, culturally responsive, and potentially best practices for the way forward, we are seeking feedback and input from communities and people with lived and/or living experience of homelessness.

As a first step, we would like to encourage frontline workers and managers who work in agencies that support people in situations of homelessness to complete our online survey. This survey will inform a report with recommendations on how to move forward with developments on assessment processes and approaches.

If you would like to participate in the survey, please click on this link. This survey will take approximately 10 - 15 minutes to complete.