Overton Brooks VA Medical Center’s Healthcare for Homeless Veterans program, or HCHV, is working with a coalition of agencies to end Veteran homelessness in the region, an effort that spans more than 40 partnerships across 26 counties and parishes— partnerships that have helped 3,448 Veterans in the region since 2006, according to statistics provided by HCHV.
“We cannot do what we do without our community providers,” Marla “M.G.” Moore said. “That’s the bottom line.”
Moore, HCHV Coordinator, supervises the program’s numerous branches. One such branch, Homeless Outreach, specializes in bringing Veterans into the coalition fold.
“Our folks are out there on the front line,” Moore said. “Homeless Outreach works with our partners at Hope Connections, Volunteers of America and others to reach out to homeless Veterans. They go out in the community— in the woods and under bridges— to look for Veterans who need our help. They’re the ‘gatekeepers.’”
However, combing the region for “unique Veterans,” or Veterans not enrolled in VA health care, is not always necessary. In many cases, Veterans come to them self-referred or by way of a substance abuse program, according to Moore. “They are either homeless or they’re at risk of being homeless.”
To Moore and her colleagues, fighting this trend requires a multi-faceted approach— an approach that gives homeless Veterans the services they need to become healthy and self-sufficient.
The reach of ‘outreach’
Teresa Martinez, Homeless Outreach Specialist, HCHV, reaches out to Veterans where she is most likely to find them— at homeless shelters across the region to include places like Longview, Texas, Monroe, La. and Texarkana, Ark as well as parks and wooded areas.
Shelters contact Martinez when they believe they have an eligible Veteran. Martinez conducts an assessment with the Veteran so see which of the programs he or she is most likely to fall under, programs that include Safe Haven, Grant-Per-Diem and the HUD-VA Supported Housing Program, or HUD-VASH, to name a few. For instance, a Veteran who meets the HUD definition for homelessness may qualify for HUD-VASH. This definition cites that the Veteran must experience at least three episodes of homelessness— at least 15 days of homelessness per episode— in a location not fit for human habitation, which usually means sleeping in the elements or in the back of a car, according to Moore and Martinez. The definition also includes shelters and other areas of “transition.”
“Couch-surfing doesn’t apply,” said Moore “It probably should, I know it used to. They (homeless Veterans) also have to have intensive case management. That means that they’re not going to be able to sustain independent housing without us being involved in their life for a long period of time, which is typically longer than two years.”
However, Homeless Outreach rarely waits for a shelter to call. “I try to get up here once a week or once every two weeks, because they (homeless Veterans) only stay at the shelter as long as it’s free. Once they get to a point to where they have to pay, they bail out,” Martinez said.
Homeless Veterans also need a DD Form 214 as proof of their Veteran status to be eligible for most of the services HCHV can put them in contact with. Of course, Martinez and her colleagues do not expect them to have it on their person. That’s where nonprofit organizations— such as the East Texas Veteran’s Resource Center— come in.
“We find out their situation and how they got to where they’re at,” said Tim Langley, Veteran Outreach Coordinator. “We get in touch with the National Archives to see about getting their DD 214. We also have what is referred to as a ‘ministerial alliance,’ which is a local alliance of faith groups that combine their resources to help homeless Veterans.”
The East Texas Veteran’s Resource Center is one of the many nonprofit organizations that partner with the VA, serving as an access point for those who are seeking help. Langley and his colleagues not only serve as a connection to these services, but they can also place the Veteran in contact with other programs as well. A gap may exist between the time their office comes in contact with a homeless Veteran and the actual time it takes for that Veteran to receive help through a specific program or grant. The ministerial alliance and other private organizations help the East Texas Veteran’s Resource Center close this gap.
“There is also such a thing as a preventative grant,” Martinez said. “Let’s say we have someone who is at risk of being homeless. He or she is probably in our substance abuse program or comes to the resource center saying that they lost their job and they’re about to lose their house, there are grants that can help them until we can get them to a point to start over.”
“We do the best we can to catch them on ‘the other side.’” Langley said. “It’s also a wonderful thing to see people of different faiths come together to help Veterans.”
Why Veteran homelessness happens
The trend of Veteran homelessness remains rooted in an increase in mental disorders and substance abuse as well as a decrease in economic opportunity, according to Moore.
“If you know anything about mental illness, it is genetically passed down unless it is the result of a traumatic brain injury or prolonged substance abuse,” Moore said. “When it comes to mental disorders such as schizophrenia, those typically do not manifest themselves in an individual until he or she is in late adolescence to mid-twenties. People go into the service young, so someone will go into the military feeling fine and dandy and as a result of a lot of stress, their predisposition gets triggered. It’s like having a family history of ulcers, you can have a predisposition to ulcers, but if you don’t experience enough stress you might not get an ulcer. Mental illness is similar.”
According to Moore many people who suffer from mental illness fail to cope with stress in a healthy manner, a failure that usually results in self-medication.
“Many of the Veterans we find have a dual diagnosis,” Moore said. “They’re suffering from substance abuse and addiction issues and also have some type of mental illness, which is why they’re self-medicating in the first place. If you relapse in one— you relapse in the other. Substance abuse doesn’t have a high survivability rate. Statistically, only one in three make it.”
Economic trends and short term financial solutions may also serve as the proverbial straw on the camel’s back, placing a Veteran in a position he or she never thought they would see themselves in.
“The economy is a factor. It’s very common, there are lots of people who out there who have lost everything,” Moore said. “The unemployment rate everywhere is still crazy. I’ve seen Veterans who get out of the military and can’t get jobs, I had one who was living with his wife’s family and he actually made too much money according to the income limits. I have another Veteran who was a top-level executive. The company downsized and he lost everything— his wife, family, house— everything.”
Like Moore, Martinez sees these economic trends on a day-to-day basis when she conducts outreach.
“We (HCHV and partners) see that the Veteran does everything he or she can before they become homeless. They use the pay day loans and other means to get out of debt and finally they seem to sink deeper and deeper,” Martinez said. “That’s why I’m passionate about this job. I can see the success when I watch the Veterans we’ve helped reach out to others and see how they’ve turned their lives around.”
The Obama administration has vowed to end Veteran homelessness by 2015. At the national level, the VA and its partners have been at the forefront of this effort with the number of homeless Veterans dropping by as much as 24 percent since 2010, according to VA literature. Moore and Martinez, as well as their colleagues inside and outside of the VA system work to end Veteran homelessness in the area.
Many agencies in the coalition are not affiliated with the VA, but serve as nonprofit organizations dedicated to ending homelessness in general. Central to this coalition is Hope Connections, a hub of support services that will eventually house the homeless on-site.
For more information regarding Health Care for Homeless Veterans, or if you know of a Veteran who is homeless or at risk of being homeless, please call the Veteran’s Crisis Line at 1-877-424-3838 or chat live 24/7 with supportive and knowledgeable VA staff at www.va.go