VA pursuing strategic, and some say lofty, goal of ending problem by 2015
WASHINGTON -- On a cold night in Monmouth County, N.J., a lone dishwasher stayed late, taking on extra work to buy time. The restaurant's owners, trying to close up, guessed the man had no place to go. And when they tried to find him one, they struck out.
The restaurant is owned by rock legend Jon Bon Jovi's foundation, and Bon Jovi and his wife, Dorothea Hurley, discovered that night that finding services for the homeless is no easy task. For the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is trying to tackle the problem of veterans' homelessness, figuring out how to make the task easier is a pivotal goal.
After Bon Jovi couldn't find information that night, he wondered whether he could use technology to help him do so. Months later, he had a conversation with then-White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, and now Bon Jovi's vision of real-time access to services for the homeless is part of the VA's push to eliminate homelessness among vets.
"Fighting homelessness doesn't happen behind the desk -- unless it's my desk. It happens out in the field," said Jonah Czerwinski, the director of the Veterans Affairs Innovation Initiative, which pairs up government and nongovernment individuals.
Seeing its inability to serve veterans efficiently when it came to homelessness, the VA unveiled a strategic plan in 2009 to end veteran homelessness by 2015.
"Ending veterans' homelessness is a test of all that we do at VA," agency Secretary Eric Shinseki said at a conference in May.
In January 2011, the VA estimated that on a single night there were 67,495 homeless veterans nationwide. Further, 1 out of every 6 men and women in America's homeless shelters are veterans, and veterans are 50 percent more likely to fall into homelessness than other Americans are, according to the VA.
The VA's plan is ambitious -- perhaps a bit too optimistic, in the eyes of some experts -- and contains several elements. The agenda encompasses a range of interventions and services, including mental health and substance abuse treatment, and focuses on partnering with local communities and providing individualized case management.
It's aimed at vets such as Deborah Lee-Crite, 56, who's lived for the past six months at Chesapeake Veterans House, a temporary housing facility in Washington.
As a 10th-grader, Lee-Crite knew she wanted to go into military service. From 1974 to 1984, she served in the Army, helping with transportation and aircraft supplies.
After she left the military, lost her son in a tragedy and then lost her job, Lee-Crite went to live in a women's shelter. She eventually found herself at the VA.
"I've grown a lot here, shared a lot here, made a lot of new friends here," Lee-Crite said. At the Chesapeake center, residents take life-skills classes, go to appointments, learn about VA opportunities and attend social events.
In the past, VA services were tailored to care and treatment. Now they're also focused on prevention, said Pete Dougherty, acting executive director of the agency's Homeless Veterans Initiative Office.
"They were using yesterday's movement models," said Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.
So the VA is addressing outreach and education, treatment, prevention, housing and support services, employment benefits and community partnerships.
Since fiscal year 2009, when the shift took place, the VA has seen results. Its joint program with the Department of Housing and Urban Development has helped nearly 40,000 veterans get off the streets, according to HUD.
One recently adopted program provides short-term rental, landlord and employment assistance to homeless veterans. A second program -- the one run jointly with HUD -- provides veterans with permanent housing, case management and access to medical services.
The VA also has expanded its homeless grant program, which offers veterans up to two years of housing and support services, created a 24/7 call center and implemented Project REACH, the idea that sprang from Bon Jovi's discussion with Chopra.
Short for Real-Time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless, Project REACH is a competition that challenges software designers to create a smartphone and Web application to help homeless veterans reach the services they need.
Even with celebrity power, though, can the VA end veteran homelessness by 2015?
Donovan is worried about the service members who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Homelessness is a gradual process, he said, and it will take about five years before some of those vets become homeless.
Still, Donovan remains optimistic that homelessness can get to a "controlled level."
By Farah Mohamed, McClatchy/Tribune news
July 15, 2012