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Social work tool may help prevent homelessness

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Is it possible to predict homelessness before it happens? Research at the University of Calgary's faculty of social work has developed a tool that may greatly help populations at risk of becoming homeless.

Developed by a team led by U of C researcher Leslie Tutty, the Homeless Asset and Risk Tool is currently seeking the funding necessary to pilot and validate its use in Calgary for 2010.

"It could be used to actually identify some of those people who are at most risk of becoming absolutely homeless," said Tutty.

"The idea of the screening tool is [that] it's pretty fast and simple, so you should be able to score it pretty quickly and then say to somebody . . . 'You're scoring high in the group that suggests you might become homeless.' "

The questions and criteria for the tool were drafted from a comprehensive literature review of homelessness. The study found that while there was a great deal of content on the homeless, little of it dealt with who they were.

Looking at factors such as social competence, medical history and life transition points, HART predicts what typical assumptions may miss. Tutty cited seniors as an example of a surprising homeless demographic.

"Part of the reason I really liked the project is that it is so easy to stereotype individuals who become homeless," said Tutty. "[But] it's a very small proportion of those people who do end up on the streets."

Even if the tool does work, there needs to be follow up.

"I think our research is going to help identify more people who ultimately need programs, and maybe different programs [as well], so it's kind of a progression," said Tutty.

HART has already drawn interest from other cities and academics. The tool is currently adapted for factors to predict homelessness specifically in Calgary, but, once validated, can be adapted to other cities.

"The idea will be transferable, and certainly the core research," said Tutty. "But in terms of making the tool fit [other cities], I think people will have to do a little bit of work with it. But certainly people are saying that it sounds like a good idea."

If the maximum funding request for the HART pilot is approved, the evaluation period will run for 14 months, analyzing approximately 800 Calgarians who have homes.

Tutty hopes following the high-and low-risk scorers over time will validate the research.

"People go in and out of homelessness, and you have to catch them in the wave. And it's hard to say that it would pick up people that are going to be homeless within a year," said Tutty.

However, if the maximum funding request falls flat, Tutty's research team may have to narrow their scope, looking at either fewer subjects or a shorter time period. But even this could bring useful information regarding validation.

"So whether we do it smaller or larger . . . I think ultimately it could be really helpful," said Tutty. "It's quite a theoretical area, but I think what keeps the team interested in this whole idea is that [the agencies] could ultimately make a difference in their lives."

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