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The Homeless Veterans Hotline

Red01Last week, House the Homeless deplored the mismanagement of a certain project, and it turns out there is more to say. Here are some excerpts from the official government webpage:

The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) has founded a National Call Center for Homeless Veterans hotline…
Available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
You will be connected to a trained VA staff member.
Homeless Veterans will be connected with the Homeless Point of Contact at the nearest VA facility.
Contact information will be requested so staff may follow-up.

Thanks to Office of the Inspector General, and the investigative journalism practiced by WNDU-TV, several things became evident regarding the project’s first year of operation. As we mentioned, the “trained counselors” were missing in action during many of their scheduled work hours, and didn’t do a heck of a lot even when they showed up.

The most outrageous discovery was that over 20,000 calls were relegated to a bank of answering machines, and 13,000 veterans were never called back because (supposedly) their messages could not be understood or because they did not leave contact information.

Verbal Deconstruction

Let’s parse this sentence: “The Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) has founded a National Call Center for Homeless Veterans hotline.” Consulting several dictionaries, we find that a “hotline” is universally agreed to have certain characteristics. As a means of communication, a hotline is direct, immediate, and in constant operational readiness. Also, the caller is likely to be in crisis. Nowhere in any definition of “hotline” do the words “answering machine” appear.

Now, for the most diabolical aspect of the whole sorry tale. Who are the clients? Veterans with serious and even life-threatening problems. What is their situation? They live on the streets or in shelters or transitional housing. It’s all there in the project title: “National Call Center for Homeless Veterans.”

Another Definition

Homeless means without a residence or permanent abode – in short, without a home. And for many of these homeless veterans, the only way they can access the help line is by leaving a message on an answering machine and waiting to be called back. Called back where, and at what number, and when? Most shelters kick everybody out at the crack of dawn. Sure, in a large urban area a day center with a phone may be open, where there is a slight possibility of receiving a return call – if it isn’t mealtime, or if someone else isn’t tying up the line with their own crisis.

At least in the old days, there would be a phone booth, or a pay phone attached to the wall of a laundromat or pool hall, where a person could stay, hoping for the phone to ring. Eventually, the message-leaver would have to go find a place to pee or would be chased away for looking suspicious. Try to find a phone booth now, or any spot where a person experiencing homelessness can hang around all day, every day, waiting for some VA “counselor” to call back.

But Don’t They All Have Cell Phones Now?

Contrary to popular belief, all street people do not have cell phones. Some do, and manage to figure out how to renew the service without a bank account, and cleverly find ways to recharge their devices. Some did have cell phones, but they were stolen by other street people or by thugs from the allegedly more decent housed population, or ruined by water damage, or just plain lost. Or thrown away by police officers, with the rest of their belongings, in what the housed people call a “sweep.”

Speaking of which, check out the news from Tucson, Arizona, which generously allows people experiencing homelessness to sleep on the sidewalks that border a certain park – as long as they don’t step inside the park, which can get them arrested. So can owning more than three items. That’s right, a homeless person is legally allowed to possess a blanket, a bedroll, and a beverage. Period. It’s an ordinance that leaves no room for a phone.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless Veterans,” VA.gov, undated
Source: “Court: Confiscation rules at Tucson park unfair,” Tuscon.com, 12/26/14
Image by DaveBleasdale

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Yes, Another Veterans Administration Scandal. Again.

Internationally recognized signal requesting help

Internationally recognized signal requesting help

It is the season of fun and jollity and celebration and family togetherness and all that good stuff, and what a bummer, House the Homeless is talking gloom and doom. Here’s the thing: the veterans who cope with these obstacles do not get a day off. Their pain and distress exist every day of the year, while the agencies set up to help them, paid for by the already overstressed taxpayers of America, perform abysmally.

Thousands of veterans are on the streets or in shelters, while others are poised to become homeless if they do not soon receive the help promised to them by Uncle Sam when they signed on the dotted line and raised their oath-taking hands.

In mid-2012 the Veterans Administration opened the Homeless Hotline Call Center, at a cost of $3 million per year. Its mission was to provide homeless and at-risk vets with information about housing, healthcare, training programs, and employment opportunities. Sadly, the Office of the Inspector General found discrepancies which WNDU-TV formatted as bullet points for easy comprehension:

 

  • The OIG found that of the nearly 80,000 phone calls made to the hotline, there were roughly 40,500 missed opportunities…
  • The Inspector General could not account for a significant amount of the counselors’ time.
  • Counselors often did not log in or did not spend the entire day logged into the Call Center telephone system.
  • Counselors who worked the night shift were not logged into the telephone system and were unavailable to answer calls an average of 4 hours each night.

Other news sources offer details and reactions. For FreeBeacon.com, CJ Ciaramella notes that in fiscal 2013, the first full year of operation, the hotline failed miserably. Hotline staff was unable to even answer more than 21,000 calls from homeless veterans. Another 3,000 provided all the required information to be referred to a VA medical facility, but never received referrals. (50,000 referrals were made, but as for quality control monitoring or followup – forget it.)

Apparently, that $3 million bought a slew of answering machines and not much else, except for 60 so-called counselors who have better things to do than actually answer calls or provide counseling. The “missed opportunities” occur when callers are not referred to medical facilities, or when cases are closed for no discernible reason. Arnaldo Rodgers of Veterans News Now reports that in 2013, nearly 80,000 incoming calls were logged by the system.

A bit of rough math shows that to be 219 calls per day. Divided by 60 workers, that’s 3.65 or nearly 4 entire phone calls per day to be handled by each counselor. Sure, people get days off – which might raise the number to perhaps 6 calls per day for the ones on duty. So, this big, elaborate, expensive system invented by the most powerful entity on earth, the U.S. government, cannot manage to have the needs of 6 clients per day handled by the average employee? Come on, that’s only 3 before lunch and 3 more between then and quitting time.

It Gets Worse

Apparently, that paltry accomplishment is too much to ask, because some 21,000 callers never even got as far as a human contact, but were left to tell their tales of woe to answering machines. So they left messages asking for return calls, 13,000 of which were never made because “messages were inaudible or callers didn’t leave contact information.” Really? Really?

Sure, inaudible messages happen to the best of us – especially when cell phones are involved. But here is a pertinent question. Doesn’t modern telephone technology – and Uncle Sam can afford the best – provide a method of determining from what number a call was placed? We bet it does.

If the caller is too sick or weak to speak up properly and leave a coherent message, it just might be a high-priority call that needs to be answered with the utmost haste. Maybe the troubled veteran is operating on 30% lung capacity, or has PTSD or a head injury, or suicidal intentions, or didn’t get his lips sewn back on correctly. If the vet can’t be easily heard or understood – what is to stop the alleged “counselor” at other end from calling back?

“Shameful” is Not Too Strong a Word

The title of counselor implies a certain amount of sympathy and understanding. When a message does not include callback information, what prevents the “counselor” from retrieving the phone number from the all-knowing machine and calling back? Is it laziness? Are they playing video games or watching porn? Do they have a punitive attitude toward the veterans whose calls go unreturned, thinking it serves them right for not leaving a proper message?

Let’s give everybody, including ourselves, a holiday gift by holding lawmakers responsible to fix this. No, not just throw more taxpayers’ money at the VA, like the $17 billion emergency bill in July. No. Somebody needs to figure out how to make these people do their jobs. If the most powerful government on earth can’t keep a bunch of bureaucrats at their desks, engaging in productive activity, then something is incredibly, unconscionably, inconceivably wrong.

Reactions?

Source: “Homeless veteran hotline audit reveals multiple failures”, WNDU.com, 12/11/14
Source: “Busy Signal: Thousands of Homeless Veterans Couldn’t Reach VA Call Center”, FreeBeacon.com, 12/15/14
Source: “Hotline to Help Homeless Veterans Falls Short”, VeteransNewsNow.com, 12/15/14
Image by Torley

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The VA, Corporate Profiteering, and Too Many Pills

White PowderThe Veterans Administration is the second-largest agency of the U.S. government (only the Department of Defense is bigger). But big does not mean good. Can the VA’s glaring deficiencies be blamed on its size? Or should each case of malfeasance be laid at the door of an individual? Whatever the excuse, neither veterans nor taxpayers are getting a fair shake.

Very many vets are currently homeless. Every vet who is not in optimal health – physically and mentally – is one step closer to joining the army of people experiencing homelessness. Prevention is key: once a person hits the streets, regaining the status of “housed” can be incredibly difficult.

The VA has stated that many vets remain homeless longer than they were on active duty. When that announcement was made, it was estimated that between a quarter and a third of homeless veterans were tri-morbid, a chilling term that denotes someone in the grip of not just one or two, but three deadly forces – physical illness, mental illness, and substance abuse.

For anyone at all, the ideal would be to have the shortest possible interval of homelessness. The first priority should be shelter because, as the VA warns, the longer a person spends on the street, the more she or he will be exposed to health risks. House the Homeless could easily focus every post on this constellation of problems. An enormous amount of material is available about veterans getting the shaft. But we are eager to free up the space to rejoice about some good things, soon. Meanwhile, we will look at an “oldie but goodie,” then plow through the plentiful recent events.

QTC, Principi, and Peake

Several years back, the VA began outsourcing physical exams. Veterans applying for compensation would be seen by someone from the disability examination contractor QTC. Critics pointed out that this privatization presented a conflict of interest that jeopardized available care, and asked whether this function was being privatized to a harmful degree. Why else would QTC pay Jefferson Consulting Group thousands to lobby for it?

From 2000 to 2004, Lt. Gen. James Peake held the post of Army Surgeon General. Despite his exalted rank and powerful position, he declared that the scandalous conditions at Walter Reed Hospital came as a complete surprise to him. Then, he sat on the QTC board of directors, helping it make hundreds of millions of dollars from VA contracts. In 2007, Peake became Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Strangely enough, another person from QTC’s upper echelon had already held the same government post. Anthony Principi’s career trajectory veered from QTC to the VA and back to QTC. At the website of the Blue Water Navy Vietnam Veterans Association (for victims of Agent Orange) a writer, probably webmaster John Paul Rossie, says Pricipi’s name makes the blood of veterans boil with anger.

Another Pervasive Problem

VA researchers published a study in 2011 that showed a fatal overdose rate among its patients that was nearly twice the national average. This is the subject of a very long piece which highlights several individual case histories featuring deadly overmedication. About the efforts of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), reporter Joshua B. Pribanic wrote:

Prescriptions for four opiates – hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone and morphine – have surged by 270 percent in the past 12 years, according to data CIR obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

The introductory text of a CIR video also tells the story:

Among military veterans, the problem of painkiller abuse is especially striking… And yet the department continues prescribing veterans increasing amounts of powerful painkillers, enabling their addictions and hindering their recovery from war.

Reactions?

Source: “National Survey of Homeless Veterans in 100,000 Homes Campaign Communities,” VA.gov, November 2011
Source: “Corporate profiteering against Iraq vets?,” Salon.com, 11/20/07
Source: “Say NO!! to the Peake Nomination,” BlueWaterNavy.org, 2007
Source: “To Kill or Cure: Medicine for Veterans Raises Alarm About Prescription Drugs,” PublicHerald.org, 10/02/13
Source: “Video: Drugging America’s Veterans,” CIROnline.org, 10/11/13
Image by Kurtis Garbutt

 

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If You Care About Helping Vets…

KXAN-TV, Austin

KXAN-TV, Austin

House the Homeless salutes an amazing piece of investigative journalism by Brian Collister and Joe Ellis of KXAN-TV in Austin, Texas. We hope you will go to the story page first, which is the source of the table shown here. That’s a good way to avoid being too discouraged about the situation. It is important to start by knowing how many wonderful veterans groups with low fundraising expenses exist.

YES, there are plenty of organizations you can donate to, and feel confident that America’s veterans will get the large majority of the donated dollars. We can keep that firmly in mind while reading the rest of the story, which is what our grandfathers called “a real kick in the pants.”

According to the station:

KXAN uncovered millions of dollars donated to a variety of veterans charities mostly going in the pockets of fundraisers. We examined financial reports those solicitors are required to submit to the Texas Secretary of State. Professional fundraisers have collected $130,399,567 for veteran organizations since 2001, the records show. But those fund-raisers kept 84 percent of the money donated.

Air Force vet David Reyna came back from Afghanistan with traumatic brain injury and PTSD. He had a job, but was hit by a car and could no longer work. Turning for help to the Texas VFW Foundation made sense – except that it didn’t, because they gave him nothing but an extensive runaround. That is when the KXAN investigators entered the picture, and guess what:

The Texas VFW Foundation uses a professional telemarketer in Dallas called Southwest Public Relations, which raised more than $67,617 for the group in 2011 and 2012 combined… The group kept 83 percent.

Although Reyna is certain he filed all the necessary paperwork and jumped through all the requisite hoops, someone from the Texas VFW Foundation told the reporters that Reyna just plain did not qualify for help. Here is a little taste of the sort of conversation an investigator has with, for instance, the Texas VFW State-Adjutant Quartermaster:

Journalist Brian Collister:
Will you please sit down and talk to us about why so much of the money goes to professional fundraisers?

Roy Grona:
No sir, I won’t. I’ll refer you to my lawyer. She’s handling all of that.

In the context, this quotation may come as no surprise:

We also reached out to other Texas VFW leaders and those in charge of the national VFW in Washington D.C. But no one was willing to answer questions about fundraising.

The journalists, naturally, wondered how close to the norm that 83% figure was, and made it their business to find out. Down toward the bottom of their story is a roster of shame, the list of groups collecting money ostensibly to help veterans and holding on to as much as 95% of the take. The most disgracefully avaricious is Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States.

Good advice for all of us is to check with the informational website Charity Navigator, which maintains a page especially for charities that claim to help veterans.

Charity Navigator’s president and CEO, Ken Berger, believes that 15% is enough for any fundraising group to cover its administrative costs. When they keep more, especially when they keep a lot more, the politically correct word for them is “inefficient,” though other adjectives have been applied. His very helpful advice is to never contribute through telemarketers, but give donations directly to non-profit organizations.

TWO IMPORTANT NOTES

Please help out with the 2014 New Year’s Day Thermal Underwear Give Away Party!

Brand New! Here is a resource to share, all about other ways to truly help Americans experiencing homelessness – No Safe Place: Advocacy Manual
A Report by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty

Reactions?

Source: “84% of donations never reach veterans,” KXAN.com, 11/06/14
Image by KXAN-TV

 

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The Problematic Homeless Veteran Count

The only place where an accurate count is possible.

The only place where an accurate count is possible.

Last time, we noticed the irony of veterans who have survived war coming home to die in the streets of America. More irony can be found in the fuss made over the process of counting homeless veterans, which may not be very important after all; and in the amount of energy that fuss drains from efforts to remedy the situation. In February of this year, the county that includes Tampa, Fla. did a homeless count. Keith Morelli wrote:

The results showed a slight drop in the number of homeless — but a 47 percent bump in the number of homeless veterans and their families, from 170 last year to 250 this year. Homeless veterans accounted for 11 percent of the homeless population in Hillsborough County, and the spike in their numbers wiped out substantial decreases among other demographics, the survey concluded.

The reporter quoted Sara Romeo, director of the veterans assistance program Tampa Crossroads, who spoke of the difficulty of achieving an accurate count because vets may be suspicious, mistrustful, and flat-out uncooperative. Others in the helping professions confirm this observation, and note that the longer someone is on the streets, the more mistrustful he or she may become.

Vets who have sought help for medical and/or psychological damage and found obstruction and indifference often give up. Some purposefully hide: these are people who were trained to endure hardship, to conceal themselves, to improvise and live off the land. A veteran who does not want to be bothered can more easily get “lost” than, for instance, a civilian single mother with a few children.

More Opportunity to Get it Wrong?

The VA had better be good at counting, because it offers its services as the counter of not only veterans, but whole homeless populations. Gale Holland reported that 16 jurisdictions have signed on, while others, including Los Angeles County (her beat) turned down the opportunity. By the last estimate, the county contains 9% of the entire nation’s homeless, including 6,000 veterans. Holland wrote:

Earlier this year, the Department of Veterans Affairs offered the county an estimated $772,000 to fund a 2014 homeless count…. The [Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority] commission, made up of 10 mayoral and county supervisor appointees, said that negotiations with the VA over the contract had broken down. [Executive director Mike] Arnold said the VA’s “contracting bureaucracy” was to blame….

…To allow for historical comparisons and avoid the misleading appearance of a sudden drop, HUD in 2014 will publish L.A. numbers with and without the hidden homeless data.

That last sentence is a clue to the impossibility of knowing how many homeless vets are out there. For this and other reasons, grant-writing expert Jake Seliger responded to Holland’s piece. What he gathered from it was that the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority claimed a homeless number of 54,000, but the federal authority disagreed. As a result, HUD used its number of 36,000, thus causing the statistical disappearance of 18,000 people experiencing homelessness. “Or any other number you care to make up” is a phrase Seliger uses, then he drops the bomb and reveals that none of the guesses matters, because:

HUD actually doesn’t allocate McKinny-Vento Homeless Assistance Act grant money based on homeless censuses. Instead, McKinney Act funds…allocate money based on population, poverty, and other cryptic metrics in specified geographic areas… Neither number is going to lead to an increase in the number of beds available—which matters—or the rules associated with those beds.

Joel John Roberts of PovertyInsights.org wrote of the Los Angeles controversy,

Taking responsibility for housing the most impoverished Americans is hard. It is much easier to steer the conversation toward why our counting of them is inaccurate.

The debate is an insult to those on the streets. Allowing so many people to be homeless—more than the total population of some American towns—is a joke. And that joke is on the people living on the streets.

Reactions?

Source: “Number of homeless veterans in the area spikes,” Tbo.com, 05/11/14
Source: “LA County’s homeless population difficult to quantify,” LATimes.com,07/04/14
Source: “The Mystery of LAHSA Homeless Census Numbers, HUD and Data Implications,” Seliger.com, 07/07/14
Source: “Political Homeless Numbers: Can We Count On It?,” PovertyInsights.org, 07/08/14
Image by Walmart