By Steve Lewis
WASHINGTON — Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki has set a goal of ending veteran homelessness within five years, saying, “No one who has served this nation as a veteran should ever be living on the street.”
Thanks to the efforts of Susan Angell, PhD, executive director of the Homeless Veterans Initiative, and her colleagues, good progress is being made in meeting that goal. In its first year, that project reduced veterans’ homelessness by 12%, earning Angell and Mark Johnston, acting assistant secretary for community planning and development, one of this year’s Sammies, considered the Oscars of government service.
“The greatest mission for me at VA is to end veteran homelessness,” Angell says. The first key to this current success, she says, was Shinseki’s backing. “He got the resources,” she notes. “We were able to ramp up our staff throughout the nation, and there were new kinds of grants to communities. It’s been a very concerted, orchestrated effort from the very top to the social worker meeting with veterans on the street.”
Angell says she knew early in her career that she belonged at VA. Her social work practicum was at a VA center in Honolulu, recounting, “I just knew from the first week that my goals would be to work for VA and, at that time, Vietnam veterans and their families.”
Her first position was as a social worker with a small community-based operation that served Vietnam veterans and family members. She then went to Maui and opened a veterans’ center and a co-located primary care center. After earning her PhD, she served for 10 years as a regional manager for 31 veterans’ centers, then was an associate director of a medical center in Florida and ultimately assumed directorships in Arizona and then Washington.
Importance of Engagement
Much of Angell’s work now involves engaging with other federal agencies, community partners and corporate partners “to help us do things VA cannot do alone,” she says.
A “day in the life” usually begins with a staff meeting examining all of the ongoing initiatives.
“For example, we had a huge [initiative] we planned and executed in 28 cities in two weeks called ‘Make the Call,’” she explains. “This included conducting interviews and visiting homeless facilities. The whole point was to get people to make the call to our homeless call center.”
A veteran, family member, friend or provider can make such a call, which alerts VA to the need for intervention, she adds. “With that initiative, we were able to increase calls by 200%,” Angell reports.
The foundation upon which such interventions are built is multifaceted and includes treatment, outreach and education, housing, employment and benefits, collaboration and partnership, and education, according to Angell, who notes, “We learn a lot about ending homelessness through the different initiatives and working with the community. We are very meticulous about reviewing performance data, and, while the job is obviously not done, we will have enough data to see what the best strategies are.”
As part of her responsibilities, Angell also often goes to Congress to meet with appropriate committees. “They’re always interested in how our new programs are going, so we do a quarterly briefing,” she says.
In addition, she meets with staff from the Department of Housing and Urban Development several times a week to look at initiative data and performance across the nation. She also works with other federal agencies such as the federal Department of Transportation.
“One of the barriers we have involves needs for transportation,” she explains. “They put grants out for transportation cooperatives, where homeless veterans can call and get the help they need.”
While Angell is long removed from the days when she worked closely with veterans on a daily basis, she notes that her current position allows her to have a much greater impact on a larger number of them.
Still, she says, “I do have those moments in time when I can interact with veterans. For example, I got to go to a DC hospital stand-down and meet every veteran. I went to a San Diego stand-down and had individual time with veterans that wanted to talk with me, as well as with groups of veterans.”
Those opportunities, she adds, “keep me going.”
The reaction of the veteran participants has been and continues to be “very, very positive,” Angell says. “When you take someone who’s been on the streets or in and out of programs, it’s amazing the feeling of safety this program provides. They’re so happy to have that opportunity and know we stand next to them and support them to have the quality of life they’ve earned through their service.”
Angell says it is gratifying, “Just knowing we are able to keep our promise to the people who served this country.” She says the initiative has probably housed about 38,000 veterans during its existence.
“I’m so grateful and proud of the staff who do the heavy lifting for all the things that need to happen to get someone in a home — one at a time,” Angell says. “I get to see all of them become safe and cared for. I feel I have the best job anyone could ask for.”