Num­ber of home­less vet­er­ans in county rapidly drop­ping

Cecil Whig - - & - By JA­COB OWENS

jowens@ce­cil­whig.com

— Years of re­fo­cused ef­forts to ad­dress home­less­ness among Amer­i­can vet­er­ans is be­gin­ning to pay big div­i­dends, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics re­leased by the U.S. Depart­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs.

Statewide, the VA Mary­land Health Care Sys­tem saw a de­crease of 25 per­cent in recorded home­less vet­er­ans dur­ing the Jan­uary Point-in-Time sur­vey com­pared to the pre­vi­ous year, drop­ping from 568 to 427. When look­ing specif­i­cally at Ce­cil County, the de­crease jumps to 42 per­cent, drop­ping from 76 to 44.

Chris Buser, the chief of so­cial work ser­vice at the VA Mary­land Health Care Sys­tem, said the sys­tem’s re­cent suc­cesses are the re­sult of an in­crease in staffing and re­sources ded­i­cated in the fight to end home­less­ness among those who have served the coun­try.

“When I first came to the VA in 1999, our home­less pro­gram con­sisted of two peo­ple — one each at our Baltimore and Perry Point cam­puses — who would do out­reach and find vet­er­ans to hook into our re­sources,” he said. “From 2008 to present un­der the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, a great fo­cus has been placed on home­less vet­er­ans. Today, we have 73 po­si­tions in our home­less pro­gram.”

That in­crease in man­power in­cludes so­cial work­ers, nurse case man­agers, psy­chol­o­gists, oc­cu­pa­tional ther­a­pists and out­reach ad­vo­cates, among oth­ers. Staffing alone could not help stem the tide, how­ever, and an in­vest­ment in hous­ing vouch­ers and grants has helped tremen­dously, Buser noted.

In 2010, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and the VA un­veiled a plan to ad­dress home­less­ness of vet­er­ans. At the cen­ter­piece of that ini­tia­tive is the HUDVeter­ans Af­fairs Sup­port­ive Hous­ing (VASH) pro­gram. It com­bines the U.S. Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Ur­ban De­vel­op­ment’s hous­ing choice voucher rental as­sis­tance for home­less vet­er­ans with case man­age­ment and clin­i­cal ser­vices pro­vided by the VA. Since 2008, a

PERRY POINT

to­tal of 85,000 life­time vouch­ers have been awarded.

Through the HUD-VASH pro­gram, a hous­ing sub­sidy is paid to the land­lord di­rectly by the lo­cal public hous­ing au­thor­ity on be­half of the par­tic­i­pat­ing vet­eran. The vet­eran then pays the dif­fer­ence be­tween the ac­tual rent charged by the land­lord and the amount sub­si­dized by the pro­gram. The case man­age­ment in­cludes all man­ner of ser­vices, from phys­i­cal and men­tal health to oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy and ad­dic­tion treat­ment.

Today, a to­tal of 1,000 VASH vouch­ers are avail­able to vet­er­ans in Mary­land, with 95 specif­i­cally set aside for Ce­cil County. Each year, Congress typ­i­cally ap­proves be­tween 75 and 100 new vouch­ers to con­tinue help­ing more vet­er­ans.

Also avail­able to VA case man­agers are grant-funded place­ments, where a vet­eran can be housed for up to two years at a home in the com­mu­nity, al­though most likely stay three to six months un­til they are moved to a dif­fer­ent VA pro­gram or are helped back onto their feet. The grant pro­grams help case man­agers in­ter­vene in emer­gency sit­u­a­tions.

“The goal is find out what brought you into home­less­ness and what we need to put into place so you can exit suc­cess­fully,” Buser said. “We want to get a vet­eran to a point of self­suf­fi­ciency.”

Both the HUD-VASH and grant-funded pro­grams are fea­ture points of the VA’s “hous­ing first” model, which looks to shel­ter home­less vet­er­ans in con­junc­tion with con­nect­ing them to needed ser­vices.

While some have raised doubts about the ac­cu­racy of the an­nual Point-in-Time sur­vey sta­tis­tics, Buser notes that they only rep­re­sent a sin­gu­lar week­end and some are prob­a­bly not rec­og­nized, but of­fi­cials strive to ac­count for as many vet­er­ans as pos­si­ble. Shel­ters re­port logs over two nights in Jan­uary, the na­tion’s cold­est month, while teams di­vide ar­eas into a grid, vis­it­ing known home­less en­camp­ments and search­ing streets and al­leys. De­tailed sta­tis­tics aside, Buser said he feel­ing con­fi­dent that the num­bers show the ac­tual trend be­ing seen out in com­mu­ni­ties.

While the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion set a goal of end­ing vet­eran home­less­ness, it’s a goal that re­mains to be elu­sive. Buser ad­mits that it is a dif­fi­cult end to achieve and re­lies upon equal parts re­ac­tion, which the VA has im­proved, and pre­ven­tion, of which tran­si­tional and emer­gency help re­main grow­ing parts of the VA sys­tem.

“How do we start work­ing with our vet­er­ans who are be­ing dis­charged so we know about post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, de­pres­sion, sub­stance abuse is­sues, etc.?” he said. “How do we in­ter­vene be­fore it costs them their fam­ily, their job or their hous­ing. It’s kind of like stack­ing Swiss cheese; ev­ery piece may have a hole but if you stack enough pieces you can’t drop any­thing straight through.”

If you know of a vet­eran in need hous­ing as­sis­tance, have them call the Na­tional Call Cen­ter for Home­less Vet­er­ans at 1-877-4AID-VET.

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