Screening and assessment tools can help programs coordinate the level of services needed to assist individuals in their exit from homelessness.
In 2015, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and the Mental Health Commission of Canada convened a task force to review screening and assessment tools that were currently available to Canadian communities. The search resulted in 15 tools -- each tool was vetted against criteria developed by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in the United States. The taskforce concluded that the Vulnerability Assessment Tool (VAT), created by Seattle’s Downtown Emergency Service Centre, was the best screening tool currently available to communities for the purpose of conducting coordinated assessments.
Previous Research on the VAT
Researchers from the Washington Institute for Mental Health Research and Training affiliated with the University of Washington rigorously tested the VAT to examine its psychometric properties, or in other words, if the VAT provides measurements that can be trusted (see page 6 of the report). The researchers found that the VAT was both reliable and valid, which means that the VAT provides consistent results and is sensitive to assessing the level of vulnerability among people who are homeless. The results highlight that the VAT is a trusted tool for communities to use. What has yet to be examined is the use of the VAT in Canada and if scores on the VAT are related to housing outcomes.
BC Housing VAT Evaluation
BC Housing and non-profit housing societies in Vancouver have been using the VAT since 2014 to assist in the placement of individuals into single-site supportive housing units operated by non-profit providers. In 2016, BC Housing initiated an evaluation to determine if the VAT was meeting its objective of contributing to the facilitation of suitable housing placements, to identify lessons learned from staff who have implemented the VAT and from individuals who have been assessed on the VAT, and to inform whether stakeholders should continue to use the VAT.
Pathways PtH Housing First, Inc. (Dr. Sam Tsemberis, Dr. Eric Macnaughton, and Whitney Howard, M.S.W.) and the Centre for Research on Educational and Community Services at the University of Ottawa (Dr. John Ecker and Dr. Tim Aubry) were commissioned by BC Housing to conduct the evaluation. The evaluation team used a mixed methods approach, which included both quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative data was collected from administrative records provided by BC Housing for seven housing sites and analyzed in order to demonstrate trends. Qualitative data was collected from building managers of the seven buildings, assistant managers, tenants and VAT assessors.
The key findings from the evaluation were:
1) Clients were generally scoring on the low-to-mid-range of the VAT, which indicated that clients were assessed as having low to medium vulnerability although a wide range of score was represented.
2) The VAT was effective in achieving BC Housing’s objective of facilitating a suitable tenant mix in supportive housing settings.
3) The VAT has some ability to predict who will be successful in housing, as tenants with higher VAT scores had shorter tenancies perhaps requiring a higher service intensity or different type of housing.
4) The VAT was perceived by BC Housing and not-for-profit societies’ staff as having significantly improved the fairness and transparency of the tenant placement process.
5) The VAT interview was viewed as a positive experience by most of the tenants, and was experienced as being sensitive and understandable, though there were some concerns about the consequences of providing forthright answers, and about certain questions eliciting some discomfort.
6) Within the context of supportive housing buildings, it can be challenging to house individuals who have higher VAT scores and more complex support needs.
Based upon these results, the evaluation team recommended the continued use of the VAT in BC Housing funded supportive housing. The full report can be found on the Homeless Hub’s website.
Canadian Version of the VAT
The results from this evaluation provide further evidence of the utility of the VAT as an effective screening and assessment tool for Canadian communities. In recognition of this utility, the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness recently released a Canadian version of the VAT. The manual has been lightly revised to reflect the Canadian context and some new material has been added on best practices for planning and implementing coordinated assessment processes.