How do Communities Use their Limited Resources to Help Homeless People?

Homeless assistance systems, as we all know, have limited resources. This means that they often cannot serve everyone. To make the most of their available resources, many communities try to serve the subpopulations and individuals who are most in need of help. Doing that, however, can be tricky.

Communities must first identify the most vulnerable persons and then match them with the most appropriate services. Experts have devised a variety of tools for communities to use to accomplish this daunting task. These tools are administered by workers in the homeless assistance system, who ask people experiencing homelessness questions in order to determine the degree of their vulnerability, as well as what services they should receive.

(Here at the Alliance we have developed our own tool for communities: The Alliance Comprehensive Assessment tool.)

There is wide variety in the assessment tools that communities use and how they use them. Last fall, the Alliance and the Office of Policy Development and Research of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) brought together leading homelessness experts from around the country for an expert convening to discuss the assessment tools that communities use and what questions they should include.

If you’re interesting in what the experts had to say, you can find a summary of the discussion in a report HUD released just this week, “Assessment Tools for Allocating Homelessness Assistance: State of the Evidence.” Here are some highlights from the report:

  • Tools used in coordinated assessment should have a clear purpose. Communities should use them either to ensure that homeless persons are directed to the most appropriate resources, or to ensure that the community is prioritizing its resources effectively—or both.
  • Assessment tools can be invasive, as they often ask very personal questions of consumers. For this reason, assessments tools should only include questions that are directly related to the services that the community can provide: e.g. if a community is unable to provide health care services, persons should not be required to undergo extensive questioning about their health care issues.
  • Whenever possible, assessment tools should include questions that will determine the preferences of homeless persons, so that they have as much choice as possible in the services they receive.
  • Many—but not all—of the experts recommended that different homeless subpopulations should receive different assessments and services. A homeless youth, for example, may have very different needs and desires than a homeless adult.
  • Assessment tools should be responsive to the local context in which they are situated. These tools should be tailored to take into account the resources in a community, as not all communities have the same resources available to homeless persons.

Finally, the experts noted throughout the discussion that further research is necessary to establish a stronger and more comprehensive evidence base around assessment tools. Right now, we simply don’t know as much as we should know about their effectiveness.

Though communities around the country are working hard to make the best and most appropriate choices with the information they have, a strong evidence base would go a long way toward improving their assessment tools and how they are used. In turn, this would bolster communities’ ability to serve homeless persons in a tailored, efficient, and timely manner.

The more research we have, the better we can work toward our goal of ending homelessness.