A Message from OrgCode on the VI-SPDAT Moving Forward

A message from OrgCode:

In December, we announced the beginning of the end of the VI-SPDAT. Questions have emerged throughout the past couple of years that we would like to respond to now, with the goal of transitioning towards a future with a homelessness response tool and approach that also addresses racial and gender inequities – which the VI-SPDAT was never intended to do. We remain committed to ending homelessness. We remain committed to helping transform systems of care. We are thankful for all communities that have provided input along the way to help improve the VI-SPDAT.

We also want to say thanks again to every person – especially people with lived experience – service provider, community leader, and subject matter expert that has helped us along the way. And we want to say thank you to the critics that have challenged us to get better, be better and respond better to the needs of all people experiencing homelessness. In a quest to accelerate activities to improve approaches that further promote racial and gender equity, as well as acknowledge vulnerabilities, OrgCode will no longer be investing time or resources in updating and supporting the VI-SPDAT, although the full SPDAT as a service planning and case management tool will continue.

For many communities, the VI-SPDAT helped systems of care further evolve from managing homelessness with a "housing readiness" service orientation to a movement to prevent and end homelessness. Time for innovation and evolution is primed once more. Here's hoping for an even more community, equity and evidence-driven tool to help us address inequities within Coordinated Entry and other systems of care. Here's hoping we see an end to homelessness in our lifetime.

In December 2020, OrgCode announced that we should phase out the VI-SPDAT and that it should be replaced by something better. Why?

Reason #1 – In 2013, the VI-SPDAT was created to support communities in engaging people experiencing homelessness, identifying what the next steps might be for each household based on their unique situation, and to assist with identifying the 'most vulnerable' to be served first. We worked with partners to create something that moved us past approaches dedicated to first come - first served, good (or bad) luck, or worse, services and housing as a reward for good behavior. In its origin, the VI-SPDAT was meant to assist communities in a more equitable distribution and allocation of deeply limited resources.

Reason #2 – Despite our best efforts to communicate and train on recommended practices for who should be administering the survey, when it should be administered, and how the survey should be used, communities were going to use the VI-SPDAT in whatever way that they wanted. After efforts to move communities to the improved version 3 of the tool proved less successful than hoped, the decision to discontinue the VI-SPDAT work was finalized.

Reason #3 – Debates over the VI-SPDAT – as a tool and how it was being used in communities – continued to be a distraction to the mission of ending homelessness. We need less debate about tools and more focus on getting people housed and helping them stay housed.

I've read articles, reports and blogs critiquing the VI-SPDAT. What do the critiques get right and what do they get wrong?

Authorship of the VI-SPDAT and SPDAT: VI-SPDAT versions 1 and 2 were co-created by Community Solutions and OrgCode Consulting, Inc. Version 1 of the VI-SPDAT was launched in 2013 and version 2 was launched in 2015. Version 3, launched in spring 2020, is technically the current version of the tool, and was not co-created with Community Solutions. The full SPDAT assessment was created exclusively by OrgCode starting in 2009.

Fair Housing: as we understand it and have been advised, some of what has been recommended in recent reports as changes to the VI-SPDAT or approaches to Coordinated Entry would not align to U.S. Fair Housing legislation. Many critics tend to omit or over-simplify Fair Housing in their considerations. Every attempt we made to incorporate race or gender as factors for consideration as triage criteria was met with advice that doing so would violate Fair Housing.

Genesis of the VI-SPDAT: some articles get part of the story right, that the Vulnerability Index (VI) was a precursor, but no article has mentioned the SPDAT Prescreen that also was used to generate the initial tool.

Not an Assessment Tool: the VI-SPDAT was never designed to be an assessment tool. It was designed as a triage tool where it explicitly states that assessment should follow whatever results come from the VI-SPDAT. That assessment should be comprehensive, empowering, strengths-based, trauma-informed, factor in equity considerations, placed in the context of the local community and composition of the population served, and the intentions of Coordinated Entry. Unlike the self-reported triage tool, we also believe assessment should capture information using multiple methods: self-report; what is factually observed; with consent, what other professionals have to contribute to understanding the specific needs of the household; and, documentation and service data. Most (all?) communities included in these studies treated the VI-SPDAT as an assessment tool; then the studies fault the VI-SPDAT for various reasons that the tool was never designed to do.

How Scoring Information is Supposed to be Used: right in the name of the tool are the words "Decision Assistance Tool" not "Decision Making Tool." Nonetheless, in the communities examined as parts of independent reviews, they seem to be treating the VI-SPDAT as a decision-making tool, then fault the tool for making poor or inequitable decisions. Again, the tool was not designed to make decisions; it was designed to collect information to assist with decision-making.

Matching: the VI-SPDAT was supposed to be one piece of information considered in the matching process, not THE information used in the matching process. Nonetheless, it is clear from some of the critiques that communities were relying solely on VI-SPDAT information to make the match, which is problematic and influences the findings of these critiques.

Absence of Engagement with the Creators of the Tool: most of the critics of the tool never contacted us, consulted with us or otherwise engaged with us. It would have been easy to correct some of the assumptions and information in some of these critiques.

Factors that Influence Results of any Engagement Tool: environmental and engagement factors can influence results of the survey. Such factors as safety, rapport, as well as when, where and by whom the engagement is completed are important considerations. In addition, engagement with other systems, and acknowledgement of the systemic inequities within those systems play an important role in understanding results.

Equity Lens: critiques are right; the tool was never designed using a racial or gender equity lens. That is a powerful insight; one we totally agree with and believe should be a central focus for the pathway forward. However, the VI-SPDAT was created to highlight the housing and support needs that would benefit adults, youth and families to capitalize on their resilience while overcoming needs and vulnerabilities impacting their ability to resolve their homelessness. For many communities, the VI-SPDAT amplified opportunities to ensure that highly vulnerable households were finally prioritized for re-housing and supports.

Voices of Lived Experience: one of the reasons many of the VI-SPDAT questions are what they are and asked the way they are asked is because of the input of people with lived experience. That tends to be overlooked in the analysis done by others.

There are Different Versions of the Tools: the tools used in various countries (e.g., United States, Canada, Australia) have differences, and there are tools for different population groups, and there are the 2013, 2015 and 2020 versions of the tools. It has been common in some of the critiques to fail to mention which country, version of the tool, and population served by the tool was actually examined, but then state universal findings.

Why didn't you begin the end of the VI-SPDAT sooner?

In 2019 and early 2020, as we were working on updating to version 3 of the tool, we considered beginning the end then. We ultimately decided to go with a release of version 3 which addressed concerns from version 2 and where we had considerably more input and diverse representation in its update. We also were urged strongly by key advisors not to begin the end yet as it would potentially destabilize systems of care given how integrated the VI-SPDAT had become in so many communities. There was also the matter of the pandemic, and knowing that communities were very busy and at times overwhelmed with providing service in the new reality. By the fall of 2020 it was clear that version 3 had little uptake, but many communities were responding to the second wave of the pandemic and HMIS staff, who have been integral to all of this, were busy with Longitudinal Systems Analysis (LSA) reports.

Where are things at with creating a new tool or approach?

After indicating in December that we should begin the end of the VI-SPDAT, we have come to learn that more work is already underway to develop tools or approaches that consider gender and racial equity than we were previously aware. We think it is great that such work is already occurring, and we have no desire or intention of getting in the way. We are open to providing insights or lessons learned from our work to organizations or initiatives going down the path of creating a tool or approach, if invited to do so. But we don't want in any way to negatively influence any aspect of a new tool or approach unfolding. OrgCode has no plans at this time to develop a new tool related to Coordinated Entry, and relinquishes that responsibility to experts in racial and gender equity as it relates to homelessness.

The training video for Version 2 of the VI-SPDAT is gone. Why?

OrgCode is no longer supporting communities to use version 2. If a community is using version 3, they will be supported until 2022.

Can we keep using the VI-SPDAT?

Communities can use any tool they want, and that has always been our position. If you are using version 3, which was launched in the spring 2020, we will provide support up until 2022. If you are using versions 1 or 2, OrgCode is no longer providing support to those versions of the tools.

Why did OrgCode not insist on training and consistency in rollout of the tools?

If we could have a do-over there are several things we would change. Certainly, one would be consistency in application, achieved through training. One of the biggest concerns we have had is how communities have used the tools or adapted the tools in ways never designed or considered in its development, which has definitely influenced some of the research findings. We made the tool available for free and it could be downloaded by anyone, with the end user assuming all risk. That was potentially a mistake, as it created diverse approaches to implementation and use that were never foreseen in its creation. There are also two other factors that influenced how the VI-SPDAT came to be and how it grew so quickly that impeded a better rollout. The first is the fact that the tool was developed initially to be used in Registry Weeks as part of the 100,000 Homes Campaign run by Community Solutions. The tool was never initially thought of as being instrumental to a community-wide Coordinated Entry process as Coordinated Entry is now understood and practiced. The second is the fact that around the time version 2 was released, the writing was on the wall that communities needed a tool as part of Coordinated Entry. Communities that were part of 100,000 Homes Campaign seemed to naturally gravitate towards the VI-SPDAT. Other communities gravitated towards the tool because it was free, readily available, integrated into many existing HMIS, and was already in use in other communities. The tipping point occurred, after which trying to put the genie back in the bottle has been next to impossible no matter how many materials we put out on how to better use the tool.

Who funded the VI-SPDAT?

The VI-SPDAT has never had a funder. For the majority of the VI-SPDAT's (and SPDAT's) existence, a five person team has tried to develop, maintain, support, test, research, refine and provide clarification about the tool across the majority of the United States, Canada, and Australia within the existing resources of OrgCode. We have not worked in a vacuum and have included the voice of people with lived experience, subject matter experts, community and agency leaders, as well as frontline staff. We acknowledge that many of the critiques of the tool have been better funded and had more staff than we have ever had as a small team hell-bent on ending homelessness and responding to the needs of community partners in their quest to improve services and supports. We can only imagine how things would have been different if a fraction of the funds used to critique the tool had been allocated to improving or replacing the tool.

What tool or approach should we use instead?

As OrgCode has always indicated, communities should pick the tool (or the approach) that works best for them. As previously stated, the OrgCode team is open to supporting others committed to the development of an improved tool or approach, if invited to do so, and we look forward to new innovations in the field. Those that have critiqued the VI-SPDAT will likely have important insights from their research on which approaches or tools should be used instead.

How has OrgCode updated/changed/improved the VI-SPDAT over the years?

Here's a glimpse of what we did just for developing version 3 of the tool: 176 survey responses; one-on-one interviews and focus groups with people with lived experience, and staff delivering direct services; and, interviews with policy makers, subject matter experts, and community leaders. Several communities agreed to help test and pilot version 3 and shared parts of their data with us (anonymized). Experts in Indigenous homelessness, as well as organizations that serve survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence were also consulted, and those entities helped prepare guidance on the administration of version 3 with those population groups.

Back when we updated version 2 along with Community Solutions we also got considerable feedback. Interestingly, one of the pieces of feedback was to ensure a question about trauma and abuse was included. After careful consideration and consultation with experts in trauma, those experts helped craft the question that became the final question of VI-SPDAT version 2. Based upon research and critiques, that may have not been the best question to ask or the best way to ask it. We thought we were being responsive to the community's input back then and listened to expert advice at the time.

Where are things at with the SPDAT?

We are continuing to support the SPDAT as a service planning and case management tool. That said, we are working on revamping it. An announcement with details can be expected mid to late 2021. Stay tuned!

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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