"Four years ago Wally Czech, then the Housing First specialist for the City of Lethbridge, was facing a dilemma.
The assessment tool used to determine people’s eligibility for the city’s Housing First program, which moves homeless people from the streets or shelters into housing, was working well in identifying adults who could benefit.
But it wasn’t working as well for youth. Many were too young to have experienced chronic or long-term homelessness, considered one of the requirements for participants.
But they were at risk. If found ineligible for Housing First, these youths would fall through the service cracks, cycling back through the shelter system again and again.
The problem, says Czech, is that assessment tools for such services are designed to focus on the negatives in people’s lives in order to prioritize those with the highest level of need.
Youth found the assessments depressing, he said. “It was talking all about what are your problems, what are all the things wrong with you,” said Czech, who has worked for 15 years in psychological counselling.
“[Youth] don’t even like to identify themselves as being homeless, because they don’t want to see themselves in that bleak situation. They still see themselves as rising out of the darkness and championing the whole world.”
Unfortunately, there were no youth-focused assessment tools available. So Czech took it upon himself to create one: the Youth Assessment and Prioritization, or YAP, tool.
Borrowing from a six-question survey designed in California to determine whether youth were vulnerable to homelessness, Czech added questions about other important risk factors for youth in his community: family conflicts over sexuality and gender; their foster care experience; and mental health, addiction or legal issues.
Prioritization based on need is still key, says Czech. But while the adult assessments determine eligibility for particular services like Housing First, the YAP lets providers determine which youth are at greatest risk of immediate or long-term homelessness.
That doesn’t always reflect their current circumstances, he says.
“They may not be in a horrible situation at the moment, but if you look at all the factors involved, if they don’t get any support or intervention, they could very quickly slide into that. That’s what the scoring of the YAP is designed to do.”
Initially the youth assessment tool was 14 to 17 questions, with youth assessed for risk of long-term or chronic homelessness, immediate homelessness, mental health, trauma and their level of need compared to others in the region.
Then in 2015 the Alberta government released its youth homelessness plan, which recommended developing a “strengths-based” needs and risk assessment tool for youth.
“Organizations, even governments, are looking at the strengths and assets of young people — especially high risk, marginalized young people — to help build out those next steps for the trajectory of that young person,” said David French, who was youth homelessness plan manager with Alberta Human Services at the time.
“Often times young people also don’t look at themselves from a strengths-based approach,” he said. “They look at all their deficits, and in conversation with them it takes some time to realize what are the assets and what are the positives in their lives.”
Czech reached out to French to see if the YAP would be a useful part of the province’s approach. French says it “felt like it was a good first step,” but the government wanted the tool to work anywhere in Canada. So the Alberta government struck a working group involving other governments to try out the tool and provide feedback.
Over six months, seven communities in Alberta, Manitoba and Newfoundland and Labrador tested the YAP and offered feedback, including from youth, leading to further adaptations.
Here’s how YAP works now. Youth go through an interview with an assessor to determine their risk for immediate homelessness, long-term homelessness and their response to different services. The 70 questions are designed to highlight a young person’s strengths, homelessness risk factors and the complexity of their lives.
Borrowing from BC Housing’s Vulnerability Assessment Tool, assessors score each youth based on five “narrative domains” — housing needs; social networks and connections; health and wellness; daily activities; and attitudes and behaviours.
The final score determines a youth’s level of need, and what services the youth should be referred to.
“But this also helps us to further identify where the [service] gaps are and what needs to be added,” said Czech, adding building services focused on youth’s strengths will help speed up their success.
“As well, they’ll feel like ‘people are supporting me in things that are positive and good moving forward, not just trying to address the issues that I have.’”
This year the YAP is part of the federally funded Making the Shift project to collect data and evidence on youth homelessness innovations in Canada.
“Lots of people in the sector know what innovations are necessary,” said French, who took a two-year leave from his government job to work on Making the Shift with A Way Home Canada, as well as the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness and MaRS Centre for Impact Investing.
“But what there isn’t is a really broad evidence base.”
YAP will undergo another six-month test this fall in 10 communities in Alberta and Ontario. The results will be used in the assessment tool’s formal validity test by University of Ottawa psychology professor Tim Aubry.
The tests will provide an evidence-base and demonstration projects that can be built upon, said French.
The timing couldn’t be better, French added. The federal government’s coming national housing strategy and renewal of its Homelessness Partnering Strategy has sparked an interest in innovation and prevention strategies for ending long-term homelessness.
French hopes that within a year all youth at risk of or experiencing homelessness in Canada will go through Youth Assessment and Prioritization.
Czech hopes it will be in widespread use even sooner. “There are lots of other people who I’ve been told are waiting for it and are anxious to use it.”