Vulnerability Assessment Tool

The people who use our shelters are among the poorest and most vulnerable members of our community. Many cope with one or more major disability or life problem that contribute to their becoming or remaining homeless. Among these, mental illness and substance use disorders, and physical or developmental disabilities are the most common.

Traditionally, community shelters have provided beds on a first-come, first-serve basis. As a result, those clients who are the lowest functioning and least able to assert themselves and are often left out in the cold. In order to follow our mission and serve those most in need, DESC staff have created a Vulnerability Assessment Tool – an instrument designed to help staff determine who is most likely to be taken advantage of or harmed on the streets. In this way, those individuals who are most in need, are served first at DESC.

The DESC Vulnerability Assessment Tool (VAT) allows staff to distinguish more objectively the relative vulnerability of the homeless adults who come to our shelters or whom we otherwise encounter in the community through outreach or referrals. This tool, which has gone through rigorous study and several modifications is comprised of a set of scales, each rating the individual’s level of functioning, health, and other specific characteristics relevant to their personal health and safety.

The tool was first put to use in the DESC main shelter program in 2003 as a way to determine who among the many would receive one of the limited beds available each night. By identifying a vulnerability rating for each client, staff were able to assign beds to those individuals who were most at risk of being victimized or injured, of harming themselves, of coming to harm simply because they could not take care of their basic needs, or of being unable to make progress without substantial support. Following the VAT’s success in the shelter program, the Vulnerability Assessment Tool was implemented in the DESC supportive housing program to better allocate our limited housing resources to those clients with the greatest need.

In March of 2010, the University of Washington concluded a research evaluation of DESC’s Vulnerability Assessment Tool and concluded that it held strong properties of both reliability and validity.

In 2015, a new evaluation by the Canadian Housing First Assessment Taskforce, a taskforce created by the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness, determined DESC’s Vulnerability Assessment Tool to be the best brief screening tool available to facilitate the screening and prioritization of homeless individuals into Housing First services. For more information about that study, click here.

At this time, DESC’s Vulnerability Assessment Tool has become widely recognized by other homeless service providers regionally and nationally, as a viable instrument for determining placement of chronically homeless people into supportive housing. DESC offers training in the use of the VAT to other public and private homeless service agencies. The training includes a detailed manual and interview script.

If you need further information regarding DESC’s Vulnerability Assessment Tool, please contact info@desc.org.