An Interview with the VA Homeless Veterans Initiative Office

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Questions from Chazz Pratt
Answers from Dr. Susan Angell, Executive Director, Homeless Veterans Initiative Office, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Susan, tell me a little about yourself, your program, and what you do to help homeless Veterans.

My office is responsible for the internal and external policy and planning, coordination, and communication strategies. We work with intergovernmental agencies including the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, United States Interagency Council on Homelessness, Department of Labor, and a host of other federal, state, and local partners to ensure we are using our assets together to end Veteran homelessness. We also provide VA leadership with strategies to continue the downward trend of Veteran homelessness.

How many Veterans are homeless?

On a single night in January 2011 there were 67,495 homeless Veterans; this is a 12 percent decline since January 2010, which means that 8,834 Veterans and their families now have homes, a clear sign of progress-especially in these challenging economic times.

The current goal is to end Veteran homelessness by 2015. Is this a reasonable goal?

Even one homeless Veteran is unacceptable. In order for us to meet our goal of ending Veteran homelessness, we are using a two-pronged approach of both rescue and prevention through a housing-first model. We will rescue those Veterans on the streets today, and, at the same time, prevent others who are at risk of homelessness from ending up there tomorrow or the day after by providing long-term stable housing coupled with treatment and supportive services.

You have the added challenge of finding homeless Veterans. They may be somewhat disconnected from the rest of society and embedded in their own community. What's the toughest part of this? How do you get homeless Veterans to reestablish contact with the services they may have disregarded or otherwise decided to do without?

One of our most successful strategies is our use of community providers in assisting Veterans. These providers have boots on the ground and an intimate knowledge of the areas they serve and often are best suited to find and serve Veterans in their communities. We also work closely with other federal agencies to create as many open doors to care for, support, and house homeless Veterans.

VA launched the "Make the Call" National Outreach Program on October 12, 2011, in 28 urban and rural areas to engage or reengage Veterans in treatment and other rehabilitative programs. This program encourages Veterans, family, friends, and citizens to call our National Call Center for Homeless Veterans at 1-888-4AID-VET to speak with a trained responder to assist them in getting the services they need.

What other kinds of outreach programs do you have that are designed to identify homeless Veterans?

VA also conducts outreach through Vet Centers, the Health Care for Homeless Veterans Program, Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA) Homeless Veterans Outreach Coordinators and our Veteran Justice Outreach program.

Mental health is a significant concern within the homeless Veteran community. What types of mental illness do homeless Veterans usually have (if any) and what treatment programs do you have that can assist those facing mental challenges?

About one-half of those homeless Veterans receiving VA care are diagnosed with a mental illness and more than two-thirds struggle with alcohol and drug abuse problems. Homeless Veterans can be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, anxiety, and depression. VA offers a myriad of mental health services in Vet Centers, Outreach Clinics and VA Medical Centers.

Many have complained about the long wait-times to be treated within the VA system. What is being done to move homeless Veterans to the front of the line?

The Veterans Benefits Administration and Board of Veterans' Appeals take every step they can to expedite claims and appeals of Veterans who have been identified as homeless or at risk of immediate homelessness. Homeless claims are expedited through processing at VA regional offices, which includes requests for military records from the Records Management Center in St. Louis.

Much-needed attention has been focused on the needs of female Veterans. How many female homeless Veterans are there and how do their needs differ?

Female Veterans comprise approximately 8 percent of the homeless Veteran population. Veterans with children have greater difficulty securing transitional housing because not all community partners provide housing that accommodates children. Within the Grant and Per Diem Program, VA does not have the authority to pay housing providers for children of Veterans in transitional housing.

To assist with this, the Supportive Services for Veterans and their Families program (SSVF) was established in 2009 to prevent homelessness among Veterans by providing financial assistance so families can remain in their current housing rather than face homelessness. This program has served more than 13,000 individuals since September 2011.

Some Veterans have figured out ways to "make an honest living" while still living on the street. How do you deal with those situations?

VA can offer assistance to homeless Veterans regardless of their employment situations through our many programs. VA believes that by providing treatment and support services to those who are employed but homeless, we can help those Veterans overcome the issues that led to their becoming homeless. VA has the ability to help Veterans enhance their skills through programs such as the GI Bill, Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, and the Homeless Veteran Supported Employment Program.

Family connections and family support are critical elements in dealing with homelessness. How do you work to reconnect homeless Veterans with supportive family members?

Our Vet Centers currently have the ability to treat Veterans and their families through readjustment counseling and outreach services.

VA is currently expanding our mental health professional roster to include professionals from two additional health care fields: marriage and family therapists (MFT) and licensed professional mental health counselors (LPMHC). The two fields will be included in the hiringannounced by VA in Aprilof an additional 1,900 mental health employees.

Many people walk, drive, or pass by homeless Veterans each and every day. What can people do to help?

VA encourages Veterans, family, friends, and citizens in the community to "Make the Call," and help prevent and end homelessness among Veterans. The number for the National Call Center for Homeless Veterans is 1-877-4AID-VET (or 877-424-3838).

What is the status toward reaching that stretch goal?

Since the initial announcement of the plan to end Veteran homelessness by 2015, VA has received generous appropriations from Congress to create new programs and fortify existing ones. We are now moving toward a maintenance phase for those programs; we are evaluating results and using lessons learned to make those programs more efficient. According to the 2011 Point-in-Time count, year we have seen a 12 percent decline in the number of homeless Veterans since January of 2010.

What needs to happen?

Continued support from federal, congressional, and other partners is key to continued success at ending Veteran homelessness. Poverty is the number one cause of homelessness, so employment is a very important component. Businesses should make every effort to hire Veteransemployers, too, will benefit from the range of expertise and commitment Veterans offer.

Safe housing is a critical element for homeless Veterans. Tell me about your efforts in that area.

VA has moved towards a housing-first strategy that combines safe housing with care and services to ensure Veterans can remain housed. VA is using Rapid Re-Housing, the Building Utilization Review and Repurposing Initiative, and HUD-VASH (Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing) vouchers to make sure that Veterans are housed in a safe and accommodating environment.

Is there anything you'd like to add? Anything you're working on that I haven't asked you about?

We are extremely grateful to President Obama, Secretary Shinseki, and Secretary Donovan for their commitment and leadership in ending Veteran homelessness.

If you're a homeless Veteran or family member of a homeless Veteran, or at risk of becoming homeless, please give our help line a call at 1-877-4AID-VET (1-877-424-3838), and visit our homeless Veteran site at www.va.gov/homeless for more information on housing assistance, health care options, and more.