The Youth Assessment Prioritization Tool – which is usually just called the “YAP Tool” – is one of the new tools that Making the Shift (MTS) is enthusiastic about bringing to the conversation on ending and preventing youth homelessness. The YAP Tool is a strength-based assessment of youth who are experiencing, or are at-risk of experiencing, homelessness that strives to be as non-clinical and non-prescriptive as possible – which is part of what makes it so different from other assessment tools. But, first things first:
What exactly is the YAP Tool?
That’s a fair question; to put it simply, the YAP is an assessment that is undertaken when a vulnerable young person comes into contact with the service system. The assessment is designed specifically to determine what the youth’s risk factors and strengths are, through a short “pre-screen” questionnaire followed by a more fulsome interview, if deemed necessary. The pre-screen is primarily focused on identifying the level of risk of long-term homelessness that the youth is facing. The subsequent interview delves deeper into strengths. The information gained through the assessment helps the interviewer (who is generally a caseworker) to make decisions on the best service pathway for the young person. The tool uses the knowledge of both the youth and the worker completing the assessment, as there is ample space for discussions, clarifications, and recommendations.
Unlike many other assessment tools currently in use, the YAP Tool’s design is strength-based – so it captures the youth’s positive attributes, skills, and goals in addition to any vulnerabilities. A strength focus requires developmental supports and opportunities that promote success, rather than those that just get rid of failures. While this can be a daunting concept, the YAP Tool is a clear example of how to implement a strength-based philosophy in a practical manner.
With all that in mind, it is important to remember that no single assessment tool can do everything! The YAP Tool is meant to contribute to the decision-making process – to help workers with the decisions they must make, not to make decisions for them.
The YAP and MTS
The three communities participating in the MTS Housing First for Youth (HF4Y) demonstration projects will be using the YAP Tool to assist in facilitating their intake, assessment, and referral processes. This is a beneficial arrangement for everyone – the community partners gain a new tool to help them connect with and aid vulnerable young people, while the YAP Tool will go through a formal validation process, undertaken by an external team based at the University of Ottawa, to help solidify its legitimacy.
On a more personal note, I was given the chance to participate in a YAP tool training session last week in Ottawa that was led by our colleague (and part-time MTS collaborator) Wally Czech and attended by many of our Ottawa HF4Y community partners. The training outlined the history of the YAP Tool, the theories it builds from (for example, the importance of prevention and of assessing youth differently than adults), and went through both components of the tool in great detail. The best part – and this was surprisingly hard to decide on – was the chance to get practical experience actually using the tool. Second best was getting to ask any and all questions we had about the tool, its application, or its history – which, for an enthusiastic question-asker like myself, was a real draw. If you are ever presented with the opportunity to participate in one of these trainings, I sincerely recommend it!
The Origin of the YAP Tool
While we at MTS are very excited about the YAP Tool, we are by no means its creators. That honour rests with Wally Czech, who noticed some challenges with the existing assessment tool for intaking youth into the service system in his community of Lethbridge, AB. At the time (2013), Mr. Czech was the Housing First Specialist with the City of Lethbridge, meaning that he was in charge of all Housing First projects there. While in this position, Mr. Czech was introduced to the TAY (Transition Age Youth) research from Dr. Eric Rice and his partners who developed a Triage Tool and conducted interviews with over 700 youth experiencing homelessness in the Los Angeles area. The research discovered 6 “core predictors” for long term (5+ years) homelessness among the youth: running away from home; violence at home between family members; religious differences with parents or caregivers; first using marijuana before age 12; being incarcerated before age 18; and whether they have ever been, or gotten someone else, pregnant. The TAY authors and Mr. Czech agreed that the research and triage tool should be incorporated into a more extensive, youth-specific assessment tool.
Mr. Czech decided that he wanted to create a tool that wouldn’t focus exclusively on numeric scores and rankings, but instead would allow each individual’s unique story to play a role in decision-making. Enter David French (another MTS colleague!) into the story: Mr. French – who was then the Manager of Community Partnership Initiatives with the Alberta Government – was looking to develop a “needs/risk assessment tool” as a deliverable (Strategy 1.2) within Alberta’s Plan to Prevent and Reduce Youth Homelessness. The two brought their expertise together to develop the early editions of the YAP Tool, along with feedback and contributions from other pan-Canadian partners and would-be users. The Alberta Government has been and will continue to be a strong partner in moving forward with broad dissemination of the tool.
In the beginning, the YAP Tool was used in conjunction with the community’s existing tool, so the results could be easily compared and workers would feel comfortable using it. After an initial testing phase, the next version of the YAP Tool was adapted to be a separate assessment, formatted as a conversational interview with a short questionnaire (known as the “pre-screen”) preceding it. In its current form, the pre-screen step is mandatory for all young people who come into contact with the service system but the longer interview afterwards is largely optional, depending on what’s revealed during the first step. For example, if the pre-screen shows that a young person is stably housed but needs help elsewhere, the full interview isn’t necessary to be able to direct the youth to proper supports.
Now that the MTS demonstration projects are fully launching, it’s time for us to turn our attention to the practical questions of why and how this project is going to be different from the usual responses to youth homelessness. The YAP Tool is a significant part of what makes (and will continue to make) MTS unique, with its strength-based nature, its youth orientation, and its focus on adaptability setting it apart from other assessment tools currently in use.
The “THIS is…” blog series is a monthly look into the concepts and ideas at the heart of the Making the Shift Youth Homelessness Social Innovation Lab project. This blog is the fourth installment of the series; click to read the first, second, and third installments.