The homepage of Lava Mae is a model of classic simplicity and clarity. “Mobile showers for the homeless,” it says, and lists the vital information front and center. On Wednesdays the San Francisco hygiene bus is parked at a women’s center; on Thursdays and Fridays at a venue in the fabled Tenderloin district; and on Saturdays at a resource center in the historic Mission district.
The bus has two bathrooms, with a sink, toilet, and shower in each. People sign up ahead of time for ten minute slots, and are assured a private and safe bathing experience. Lava Mae is a pun on the Spanish for “wash me,” and the official motto is “Delivering dignity, one shower at a time.” Founder Doniece Sandoval once told a reporter:
The United Nations states that access to clean water is a basic human right, but for many residents in our city, that is clearly not a reality. This is about restoring some of their dignity.
This was back in 2013, when Sandoval was working on design basics and figuring out where to get the money to turn her vision into reality. Her vision came from a street incident, when she walked past a young homeless woman who lamented out loud that she would never be clean again.
At the time, the Lava Mae crew reckoned it would cost as much as $100,000 to retrofit a single bus. San Francisco Municipal Transit donated one of its retired vehicles and committed to follow up with more if the pilot project worked out.
Lava Mae’s Origins
By year’s end, at least ten organizations were lending their support. (Currently, the Partners page lists quite a few more businesses and agencies who help in some way. The social networking site Twitter, for instance, donated laptop computers for the staff.)
An online crowdfunding campaign that aimed to raise $75,000 only made $58,000, but more donations came from other sources. At that time, the yearly budget was anticipated to be more than $300,000, and it was estimated that a top-performing bus could handle 500 showers a day. The opening date was projected as March 2014, and with astonishing optimism the group hoped to have four buses remodeled and operative by then, an ambition that sadly did not come true. The timetable had to be adjusted too, with the opening month moved to June.
Thanks to her day job in public relations, Sandoval had developed immense skill working with the media, as shown by the extensive collection of news articles featured on the Lava Mae site. Wired, Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, Washington Post, Newsweek, and Fast Company are only a few of the publications where stories appeared.
Started by Private Citizens
The words “started by private citizens” appear in the organization’s biography, and that concept is of primary importance. Sandoval and the other creators of Lava Mae are just regular people, and they want other regular people to understand how much is possible when problems are met with originality and determination. At the same time, they are eager to share their knowledge with anyone who is interested. The website says:
We’ve been contacted by groups and individuals across the globe – from Singapore to Sao Paulo, LA to Atlanta – who want to create a Lava Mae for their community.
We’re here to help. Our business plan, budget, best pracitces and insights are there for the asking. Let’s create a mobile revolution!
Source: “New Startup Hopes To Create Homeless Showers In Repurposed Muni Buses ,
Source: “Nonprofit Retrofits Buses as Mobile Showers for the Homeless,” TriplePundit.com, 10/18/13
Image by Lava Mae
In a four-year period, the county of Arlington, Virginia, figured out how to house 100 families and about 300 chronically homeless adults, while at the same time saving the taxpayers a ton of money. In that neck of the woods, it costs about $45,000 a year for someone to “bounce between shelters, jail and hospital emergency rooms” as compared to $22,000 a year it takes to put them under a roof. As the saying goes, it’s a no-brainer. “Housing First” is the wave of the future.
People experiencing homelessness often have problems that contributed to their becoming homeless. But the Housing First philosophy says that in order to fix those other problems, they need a place to live as a base to work from. While detox programs and other facilities are available, and the pursuit of health is encouraged, imperfection is allowed. Even addicts, alcoholics, and the mentally ill are eligible for housing. For the Washington Post, Patricia Sullivan reports:
Arlington has a master spreadsheet that lists homeless individuals by name. The spreadsheet includes whether the people want housing, what health problems they have, their income sources and anything that might help or hinder their search for a home … One person takes responsibility for each name on the spreadsheet. They go line by line, brainstorming about which public and private treatment programs and funding can be tapped to help each homeless person.
The technique starts with data from the annual homeless count and more significantly, from “carefully cultivated contacts,” including staff at shelters and food distribution centers. The task force that meets monthly includes social services personnel from the county, health specialists, and advocates.
From Kathleen Sibert, who directs A-SPAN (Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network), the journalist learned the importance of “breaking down the silos,” which means ignoring agency divisions to draw on the expertise of everyone present, even if the needy individual does not directly qualify for benefits or aid from their particular agency.
One of the most important services is help with ID issues. After years or decades on the streets, documenting the fact that you exist can be a nightmare, and re-entry into society requires paperwork. 95 percent of the people helped over the last 4 years are said to be still in place. Some landed in jail, some were evicted, and some even found better places to live.
Reportedly, the method followed in Arlington is scalable, and could work in much larger cities. Like Washington, D.C., perhaps, which is right down the road, and said to be “operating in crisis mode.” Apparently D.C. had a strong “Housing First” culture a couple of mayoral administrations back. Then things started to slip, but are now predicted to improve.
A lot of the problems homeless people have are the result of being homeless. They don’t want to be without ID, but sometimes stuff gets stolen. They don’t want to be hygienically challenged, but there is no place to wash up. They don’t want to lose teeth, but dentistry is a luxury beyond their wildest dreams. An awful lot of homeless people, once they have a place to live and a job, are indistinguishable from you or me. That’s because you and I, if we are like most Americans, are just a paycheck or two away from having the bottom drop out and seeing our worlds collapse.
Source: “Arlington’s no-silos approach has housed hundreds of chronically homeless adults,” WashingtonPost.com, 01/31/15
Source: “Bowser administration says DC ‘operating in crisis mode’ on homeless issue.” WashingtonPost.com, 01/30/15
Image by Cliff
Dr. Mark Gordon’s traumatic brain injury (TBI) treatment program could be a life-changer for a huge number of veterans, including many who have sunk into chronic homelessness and many more who are at risk. TBI is so prevalent that some journalists refer to it as the “signature wound” of the American presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
The public perception of head trauma is pretty much limited to damage done by roadside bombs, as seen on television. But jumping out of a truck can cause as much damage as an improvised explosive device, if someone does it enough. Mere acceleration or deceleration can have an effect that never goes away (think about whiplash, and then think about what that same motion would do to the brain). A lot of life events cause brain damage in small increments that can add up to tragedy.
Add to that other random factors like football. A healthy young soldier probably played sports in school, and got a “head start” on a life-threatening brain condition. A helmet does not help, because it can’t stop the brain from slamming against the inside of the skull, which causes direct damage. Of course, veterans are not the only victims. A disproportionate number of civilians experiencing homelessness have head injuries in their medical histories.
What Happens Over Time
Dr. Gordon has found shocking deficits in the pituitary hormones of head injury patients. For instance, a shortage of growth hormone causes serious psychological, emotional, and neurological problems. We’re talking about muscular weakness, obesity, sleep loss, heart attack risk, hypertension, diabetes, memory loss, anger outbursts, attention failure, mood swings, and the inevitable depression that will haunt anyone in such a miserable state of health. As Dr. Gordon explained to journalist Joseph Carrington, the long-range consequences are weighty:
These processes include alterations in cerebral blood flow and increased pressure within the skull, contributing substantially to damage from the initial injury… Increasingly, we are discovering that traumatic brain injury is also a causative factor for accelerated hormonal deficiencies.
It starts with the hypothalamus. Via the connection known as neuroendocrine function, it rules the pituitary, which in turn sends out orders to the various endocrine glands, telling them to secrete more of something and less of something else. Damaged by traumatic brain injury, the hypothalamus and pituitary can get out of sync, and only interventional endocrinology can restore their balance.
Even the world of professional sports has started paying attention to how the effects of small, secondary injuries can accumulate over time. They cause symptoms that don’t show up for years. When a person retires from the boxing ring or is discharged from the military, an exit physical will not reveal every possible problem — far from it.
A Bum Rap
Testosterone is another chemical whose insufficiency brings serious repercussions to the traumatic brain injury patient. This fact is very controversial because of the hormone’s negative image. The medical and military establishments see it as a vanity drug that bodybuilders use to cheat in competitions. Also, the public intuitively associates testosterone with violence. The feeling is that a certain number of brain-damaged warriors are already volatile and potentially aggressive — why add fuel to the fire? But, as Dr. Gordon explains, “it doesn’t work that way.”
He defines yet another serious problem:
Unfortunately, people with so-called minor traumatic brain injury, who comprise the largest group of brain-injured patients, have no visible damage at all on brain scans.
In other words, this type of devastation will probably not be uncovered unless the doctor looks for hormonal deficiency. For this reason, brain injury is often misdiagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder and therefore untreated or under-treated.
Like PTSD victims, patients with hormone deficiencies show up with depression, low energy, fatigue, poor emotional state, poor quality of life, and bad disability rating scores. It is easy to mistake one condition for the other, and indeed some people are afflicted with both. But it is no longer necessary to make this mistake, when apparently it can be avoided by asking the right questions and administering the relevant blood test to detect pituitary dysfunction.
Another frequent problem with VA medicine is that even if the doctors recognize, for instance, testosterone deficiency, they tend to prescribe far too much of the hormone. When Dr. Gordon accepts a patient, his pioneering protocol begins with the panel of hormone tests. After a complete physical exam and a detailed narrative history, he creates an individualized hormone replacement program in which both physical and cognitive functions are re-evaluated every month. (In April, he will teach his method to 100 doctors who recognize that once in a while, a Big Answer comes along, and this might be one of them.)
The Patient Who Went Public
Former Navy SEAL Matthew Gosney describes the long, drawn-out VA process of being prescribed one thing, then another, then something a bit stronger (“come back in 3 months”) and finally winding up on a total of 12 meds, 3 of them opium derivatives, and none of them effective. If not for Dr. Gordon, he says, he would be dead. Gosney is working on a book, Hidden Wounds
I went years with hormonal deficiencies that were not tested for … on a protocol that did not and could not help me recover … The second part of the book focuses on PTSD and how after getting physiologically back to baseline I was finally in a place where the hidden wounds of my mind could finally be processed and dealt with … The purpose of this book is to get information out there so veterans can be empowered and take back their lives. There is hope and an answer.
Source: “Using Hormones to Heal Traumatic Brain Injuries,” lef.org, January 2012
Image by Matthew Gosney
German Lopez of Vox.com has published a very enlightening essay called “11 myths about homelessness in America.”
Perhaps the saddest is Myth #2 — “Getting a job will keep someone out of homelessness.” If only! Instead, as House the Homeless has emphasized many times, even full-time work is no guarantee of living inside walls. That condition of being employed, yet unable to afford housing, is called “economic homelessness,” and it is ugly. Not only ugly, but absurd. In what universe would these words make any sense?
The National Low Income Housing Coalition found a full-time minimum wage worker would have to work between 69 and 174 hours a week, depending on the state, to pay for an “affordable” two-bedroom rental unit … A full-time minimum wage worker couldn’t afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment at Fair Market Rent, a standard set by the federal government, in any state.
Source: “11 myths about homelessness in America,” Vox.com. 01/15/15
Image by David Shankbone
In English class we learned such grammatical expressions as “first person singular” (I) and “first person plural” (we). This is the latest in a collection of posts called “First Person Homeless,” which covers autobiographical accounts by people who have experienced homelessness.
When veteran Glenn Higham of Longmont, Colorado, wrote a letter to the editor, he took the opportunity to thank convenience store workers for giving him hot water in the mornings, and employees of the public library for allowing him to use the computers to find job information and send and receive email. He reminded readers how difficult it is to carry everything you own along with you at all times, and admonished an anonymous housed person for making assumptions about how he lost his two front teeth. He also wrote:
I am a man trying to survive and find a job. I’ve been told many reasons why I do not qualify for housing and financial assistance: too young or old, not physical/mentally disabled, single, no kids, not an immigrant, and wasn’t in a wartime period.
Unfortunately, this situation is shared by many military veterans, even when the systems put in place to help them are in top-notch working order and not corrupted by uncaring and neglect.
Charley James wrote for the Daily Kos that in a year’s time, he had replied to over 300 employment ads and had sent out 200 resumes. The result? Five responses – a total of five phone calls – none of them leading to a job interview. He described the inability to afford prescription medication, the shame of dumpster-diving, and the disgrace of cheating the transit system of bus fare. He wrote,
During the eight months I have been homeless, I lined up for food only to learn that the charity had run out by the time I got inside. I stood patiently for hours when winter jackets and boots were being distributed to be told nothing in my size remained. I had my underwear stolen, my dignity assailed, my spirit beaten down. I experienced the agony of learning that people I thought were friends would turn their backs on me when I wasn’t any use to them anymore.
Less than two months ago, after the city of Chicago had spent nearly $50,000 building concrete barriers beneath a highway underpass to expunge people who had been sleeping there, local journalists discovered that the construction had created a truly dangerous situation and would need to be redone at additional cost. A woman who had called this place home published a letter to the neighborhood residents, reminding them of the difficulty of finding work when you have no way to keep your clothes or yourself clean, can’t afford transportation, and never get a proper night’s sleep. Teri Sanchez wrote:
Notice that when you do pass through that we try very hard to keep it as clean as we can; we usually don’t speak unless spoken to, and we never ask for anything… If anyone would just reach out and ask they would know that we are harmless and we are just as afraid as you are – remember we are there all night. We are alone, we are treated as if we are not human… I would like to tell anyone who is interested that we do not want to be there any more than you want us there.
For the Huffington Post, a woman named Vennie Hill reflected on the actions that seemingly led to her being homeless. The interesting part is, an awful lot of housed people have quit school too early, taken a drink, tried a drug they should have stayed away from, lost their virginity too young. Yet somehow, life and the Universe forgave them, and they were not cast out into the streets to struggle for survival, year after year.
Hill had too much humility to say this, but none of the things she mentioned were any worse than the things done by millions of people who, nevertheless, are lucky enough to live beneath roofs. She wrote:
I’ve made a lot of wrong choices in my life, but realizing that has helped me make better ones. So, if you happen to see me walking and talking to myself, remember that I’m not crazy; I’m just talking to God.
Source: “The homeless are many, diverse,” TimesCall.com, 02/08/12
Source: “Suddenly Homeless 37: Daring To Hope,” DailyKos.com, 11/15/12
Source: “Kedzie Underpass Homeless Woman Pens Online Letter to Avondale,” DNAinfo.com, 12/01/14
Source: “Why Am I Homeless?,” HuffingtonPost.com, 11/23/11
Image by gaspart64 (Gaspar Torres)
In December 2014, the Travis County Commissioners Court in Texas joined a growing number of Mayors who have endorsed similar Resolutions calling for the U.S. Congress to adopt the House the Homeless, Inc., three-pronged SOLUTION that will End and Prevent Economic Homelessness.
There are two Federal Standards causing Homelessness in the nation. According to the last several reports from the U.S. Conferences of Mayors, a full-time, minimum wage worker cannot get into and keep a one-bedroom apartment. This makes up fully 1/2 of the 3.5 million people who will again experience homelessness in the nation this year. The other half, who are so disabled that they cannot work, are eligible to receive federal disability benefits called Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. While the Federal Minimum is currently set at $7.25 per hour, and shown to leave full-time workers on our streets, the SSI stipend for those who cannot work equates to about $4.22 per hour, or a little more than half that failed amount.
The Resolution calls upon the U.S. Congress to:
1) Fix the Federal Minimum Wage so that a person working a 40 hour week will be able to afford basic food, clothing, and shelter (including utilities and transportation) wherever that work is done throughout the U.S.
2) Index the SSI stipend to the local cost of housing so that a person deemed disabled by the federal government can afford a roof over their head other than a bridge.
3) Embrace the Ethical Tenet: “Discharge No One Into Homelessness.” Our nation’s Institutions: hospitals, prisons, mental health facilities, jails, foster care facilities, U.S. military, etc., must devise plans to ensure that when people are discharged from their facilities (on time), they attain stable housing situations and are not discharged to our streets. (Sign the petition here.)
Note that there are already existing structures available to enact this proposal, as each institution is already equipped with a team of social workers.
This three-pronged Blue Print will end economic homelessness for over 1 million minimum wage workers and prevent it for all 20 million other minimum wage workers. Finally, the plan will prevent homelessness for anyone leaving one of our Institutions.
Presently, the financial cost of dealing with homelessness falls 100% to the shoulders of tax payers. This plan will reduce that burden on our Municipalities that currently sustain and deal with homelessness through the creation and maintenance of shelters, transitional housing units, the use and cost of our hospital emergency rooms as if they were health clinics, parallel court systems, and police diversion for the enforcement of “Quality of Life” ordinances. Other tax savings can come from the reduction of excessive reliance on food stamp supports and excess reliance on General Assistance, TANF and EITC as all will be reduced by 50% or, in the case of The Earned Income Tax Credit, done away with entirely. This could all be done if employers (who benefit from the labor of workers) were to pay a wage that at least pays these workers enough so they can afford a simple efficiency apartment (which is even less than even a one-bedroom apartment).
Additionally, it has been clearly shown (www.UniversalLivingWage.org) that by paying living wages business will benefit by stabilizing the workforce and by simultaneously stimulating both local and national economies through increased consumer activity.
Finally, by paying fair, living wages, we will spur on the housing construction industry both locally and nationally as we respond to the housing needs of people who will finally have enough income to rent efficiency apartments just as Henry Ford’s workers became able to afford to buy the cars they were making.
Let’s take Action to make America the strong, industrious country that we know it can be. Let’s put the “O” back into Opportunity.
Richard R. Troxell
President/CEO/Founder House the Homeless and the Universal Living Wage Campaign
“Many Veterans, Especially the Homeless, Simply Avoid VA System” is the title of a story from KFBK NewsRadio in Northern California’s Placer County. The system is overloaded, says radiation oncologist Dr. Darryl Hunter, a member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve. He founded and runs a nonprofit organization, the Sacramento Community Veterans Alliance, whose mission is to connect homeless vets with health care services, a process that starts with free checkups.
Dr. Hunter has said in the past that some Vietnam veterans were made to feel ashamed of the war in which they participated. Also, a large number of vets from all eras are simply unaware of the services available to them. Whatever the reasons, former military personnel are “disappearing in the shadows.”
Throughout the country, veterans seeking help for medical and/or psychological damage have faced so much obstruction and indifference that they have simply stopped trying. Many now prefer to steer clear of bureaucracies, and some purposely hide. Remember, these people were trained to endure hardship, to improvise, to live off the land, to conceal themselves. A lone veteran who does not want to be bothered can vanish much more successfully than, for instance, a civilian single parent with 3 or 4 kids.
Missing, Not in Action
Two years ago, Joe Leal told NBC News that in Southern California he has personally encountered thousands of homeless veterans – not just hard-core old-timers left over from the Vietnam era, but military personnel who served and were discharged post-9/11. His team of vets and active duty soldiers searches the canyons and underpasses, finding burn-out cases, both male and female, who are shockingly young.
Leal, an Iraq veteran, founded the privately-funded Vet Hunters Project, which since 2010 has placed more than 2,500 veterans in either temporary accommodations or permanent homes. The preparation offered by the government for transition from military life back to civilian is totally inadequate. There are even reservists, technically still on active duty, who are homeless. Leal is quoted:
A lot of the active-duty people are getting out even though they don’t have a plan. They’re so fed up after five to six deployments. They say, ‘I don’t care what I do when I get out, I’ll just figure it out when I get out, but I know I don’t want to do this any more.’ That’s what I’m running into.
House the Homeless previously called attention to the efforts of George Taylor, who searches the byways of Florida with the object of rescuing veterans.
Shad Meshad founded the National Veterans Foundation and is himself a retired medical officer. Under his guidance, teams comb the Los Angeles area twice a week, looking for the lost. Journalist Siri Srinivas writes:
Meshad says that the VA’s estimate of homeless veterans may be a mere fraction of the actual numbers – he speculates that veteran homelessness may be five times the problem that the VA acknowledges.
Housed people who do volunteer work or interact informally with the chronically homeless may form a vague suspicion that all the vets on the streets are not officially accounted for. But when professional experts believe that the veterans experiencing homelessness are chronically undercounted, the whole situation begins to look even more serious. Currently, the number in just one city, Los Angeles, is estimated to be around 6,000. How many is that? If you lived in L.A. and had time each day to meet with one homeless vet, and listen to his or her story, that number would supply you with 16+ years of daily coffee dates.
Source: “Many Veterans, Especially the Homeless, Simply Avoid VA System, KFBK.com, undated
Source: “Fewer homeless vets this year, but advocacy group sees ‘alarming’ rise in younger ex-service members.” NBCNews.com, 12/10/12
Source: “’They don’t care’: how a homeless army veteran was forgotten by the VA,” TheGuardian.com, 11/11/14
Image by waferboard
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.
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.”
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.
Source: “Homeless Veterans,” VA.gov, undated
Source: “Court: Confiscation rules at Tucson park unfair,” Tuscon.com, 12/26/14
Image by DaveBleasdale
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.
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
The 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.
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