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The Lowdown on Common Assessment Tools

June 29, 2018 - 1:58 pm / Blog

Common assessment tools are used in coordinated access systems as part of the triage and prioritization process. Prioritization and matching people to the right housing and the right supports at the right time is essential in ending homelessness. In this blog we’ll explore common assessment tools – what they are and how they’re used with some background information on the main tools used in Canada.

It’s worth starting any discussion on assessment tools with an important reminder which is, perhaps, a blinding glimpse of the obvious: homelessness is a complex problem that will not be solved by tools.

As our friends at Community Solutions said in an excellent 2016 blog on this topic: “Ending homelessness is messy and hard. It would be easier if there were a tool that could just tell us what to do in every situation. That tool doesn’t exist”.

Common assessment tools are most often used in coordinated access systems as part of the triage and prioritization process. Prioritization and matching people to the right housing and the right supports at the right time is essential in ending homelessness. We have to break out of the inefficient and ineffective first come first served mentality that inevitably leaves our most vulnerable homeless neighbours languishing in homelessness.

BACKGROUNDER: Information on Common Assessment Tools

Common assessment tools play an important role in the triage and prioritization process by bringing critical data and rigor to the housing process. But common assessment tools, are just that— tools. They are only as useful as the experience and judgment of the people using them.

YOU are critical to the process of assessment and prioritization. Not only through your skillful application of tools, but also in using your critical thinking skills, observations and ability to leverage additional data. You will always be critical to the housing process.

The CAEH doesn’t have any preference when it comes to assessment tools and we won’t recommend one tool over another. Every community should decide based on their own priorities and needs which tool is the best fit to give them the actionable data they need to have a more informed decision-making process on housing options. We can help you review the tools that are out there, and we can help connect you with the training and expertise you need to implement the tool you choose, but ultimately the choice is yours on which tool best fits your community needs.

BACKGROUNDER: Homelessness-Specific Common Assessment Tools Currently Used Broadly Across Canada

Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing a common assessment tool:

  • Remember – it’s just a tool! Find a tool (or tools) that is good enough to give you the rapid, actionable data you need to have a more informed decision-making process on housing options. Tools are there to assist in your decision making, not to make decisions for you.
  • Have a clear basis for prioritization. Ultimately, we want to create housing and homeless systems with the capacity to ensure everyone is housed with the appropriate support. Unfortunately, we don’t have those systems yet, so we have to set priorities for scarce resources. Common assessment tools can help us make very difficult prioritization decisions with greater objectivity and transparency. But first, its important to be clear who you as a community want to prioritize and why. You’ll want to make sure you have a tool that is appropriate for the people you are assessing.
  • Be clear how you will use the tool. Do you need a tool for initial screening and triage, or do you want a tool you can use through the case management process? Are you using your assessment tool as part of your coordinated access process or are you looking for a tool as a screener for your Registry Week? Different tools have different uses, benefits and limitations so be clear what you want your tool to do.
  • Be clear who will be using it. Some tools require trained workers to use them, and others can be used by volunteers after a short amount of training.
  • Training is needed. Most tools rely on a train the trainer model which supports communities to become self-sufficient in their continued local training on a tool. However, given daily pressures and staff turn-over in the sector, communities should consider carefully the ways in which they can sustain continued training and quality assurance in tool delivery over time in their community. Often communities benefit from multiple train the trainer opportunities and/or identifying dedicated resources for continual training.
  • There are no free tools – Most tools are free to use but all will require an investment of time and resources. Beyond training costs, communities will need to consider the investments required to integrate the tools within a coordinated access system and within an existing or new data systems.
  • Remember, the use of tools is relatively new – The use of tools is still relatively new with broader use only emerging over the past decade. Often, people are still trying to understand the use, limitations, and practical implementation of common assessment tools in their communities. You should be regularly assessing the performance of your tool(s) and keeping abreast of developments in the field.
  • Do your own research – There is really no one who is expert across all the tools who can provide a fulsome and unbiased comparison and analysis. People who understand and have experience with tools are generally more familiar with one tool over another. Communities will have to look at all the available information and decide for themselves which tool works best for their community.
  • Change management is important – The use of common assessment tools often happens at the same time as larger changes in your homeless system (for example the implementation of prioritization and coordinated access and more consistent system-wide approaches). These are big changes and people may tend to debate or point to tools as the issue as people are asked to change their old ways of working. Ongoing engagement and communication about the who, what, where, when and why of the changes you’re making is important to bring people along through the changes you are proposing.
  • Act with Urgency. Learn. Adjust. When solving complex problems, the key is to embrace a culture of improvement and iteration. Common assessment tools help you do that bringing critical data and rigor to the process of prioritization. When it comes to prioritization, or any strategy for ending homelessness, there’s no such thing as “set it and forget it.” We have to set up the capacity and skill set within our teams and our local systems to track and analyze the effectiveness of our approaches in real time. What happened? What are we learning? Where are the gaps or unintended consequences? What does this tell us about the adjustments we need to make to our prioritization policy? Your choice of tool is not set in stone. Be ready to make adjustments to get better outcomes.

Common assessment tools play an important role in your community’s triage and prioritization process but common assessment tools, are just that— tools. They are not perfect. They will not end homelessness and they cannot make decisions for you. They are only as useful as the experience and judgment of the people using them.

Use common assessment tools to give you the rapid, actionable data you need to have a more informed decision-making process on housing options. Remember – YOU will always be critical to the housing process.

BACKGROUNDER: CAEH’s Work with Different Common Assessment Tools