WASHINGTON, DC—When VA Secretary Eric Shinseki took his post nearly two years ago, he learned that veterans lead the nation in homelessness, depression, substance abuse, and suicide. “It was like a punch in the gut,” Shinseki told attendees at a recent National Forum on Homelessness. He was determined that this issue would not be neglected during his administration.
In November 2009, Shinseki detailed a five year plan to end veteran homelessness. It emphasizes preventive measures like discharge planning for incarcerated veterans, support services for low-income veterans and their families, and expanded efforts in education, jobs, healthcare, and housing.
Ending veteran homelessness in five years is a daunting goal that Shinseki feels is attainable. Homeless veterans numbered 250,000 twenty-five years ago. Their numbers have been reduced by 47.6% by last year, but that still represents a formidable problem.
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VA appropriated $3.5 billion for homeless program services in 2010, and has requested an additional $700 million for 2011, in an attempt to gain momentum in the agency’s efforts. About 85% of that funding goes toward healthcare for homeless veterans, with the rest going to community partners nationwide. Considerable communication and organization will be required to direct that funding, and ensure that it is being put to the best use.
Shinseki brought up the concept of “cross-talk” a number of times at the forum, emphasizing the need for VA to communicate, not only across its own facilities, but also with organizations at every level, from other federal agencies to community homeless shelters.
The secretary has appointed Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel, MD, lead integrator in developing and coordinating VA’s role in these partnerships. “Where homelessness is concerned, he will be the conduit to the rest of VA,” Shinseki said. “Through his chain of supervision—from the department, through the VISN level, and down to the medical centers—VA will provide the lubricating mechanism to facilitate our success.”
However, funding and the will to direct it are not enough. “I’ve never been able to solve a problem I couldn’t see,” Shinseki said. The agency’s next broad step will be to create a meaningful and accurate registry of homeless veterans and their families. To do so, VA will need to gather information from as many sources of accurate information across the country as they have access to.
Shinseki has directed each facility director to hold an organizational meeting before the end of February to begin developing local plans. He has informed directors that he will be looking for results of that planning in April when VA conducts its mid-year budget execution review. If veteran homeless priorities are not being executed in one region, those funds will be reallocated to those locations where the need and activity are greater.
Outreach Provides Results at the Local Level
While VA works toward ending homelessness on a national level, individual facilities are preparing for their yearly push to bring VA services to homeless veterans on a local level. As temperatures drop and the plight of America’s homeless becomes more dire, VA medical centers hold stand-down events where they coordinate with community agencies to help get veterans into VA facilities and connected with humanitarian services.
For the last 15 years, the Washington, DC VAMC has hosted Winterhaven, the model example of the veteran homeless stand-down, which brings federal entities together with a family of key stakeholders providing services for homeless veterans. “It’s a coordinated stand-down where veterans are brought to the medical center. They have an opportunity to get employment, assistance with healthcare and screenings, an opportunity to even be leased up for permanent housing for our HUD voucher system,” explained VISN 5 Director Fernando Rivera in an interview with U.S. Medicine. “All of this happens at one place—the DCVAMC.”
The stakeholders are given booths and, throughout their visit, veterans rotate through the booths, being given information on health, education, housing, jobs, and basic social services. There are also opportunities for veterans to receive clothing and haircuts and, for female veterans, cosmetics.
Like the rest of the nation, the number of homeless in Washington, DC dipped slightly between 2008 and 2009. However, that slight drop among total homeless individuals was countered by an increase in the number of homeless families. “The numbers of homeless on the street in the DC area continue to drop. But the challenge is not just about putting veterans in a home. It’s also about preventing homelessness and being able to identify individuals and families who are living paycheck to paycheck,” Rivera said.
To this end, VA facilities in and around the district put considerable resources into their outreach programs—locating homeless veterans on the street and in shelters and collecting information on them, while at the same time disseminating information on where these veterans can get assistance.
“There are staff at the DCVAMC who work in the community and work in partnership with shelters,” Rivera said. “When veterans are identified in those shelters, the VA is contacted immediately. We go out and make contact with those veterans. We work to make them healthy, get them permanent housing, and get them education and employment.”
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