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
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?
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
Source: “84% of donations never reach veterans,” KXAN.com, 11/06/14
Image by KXAN-TV
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.
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
I have learned that, before people can think outside of their immediate needs, they must have those needs met. I refer to Maslov and the Hierarchy of Needs.
To that end, I have turned my attention to the core economics of the situation.
I have taken the existing Federal Minimum Wage (for those who can work) and tweaked it with a formula (based on existing government guidelines) that ensures that if a person puts in 40 units of work in a week , they will be able to afford basic food, clothing, housing, (utilities included) public transportation and access to the emergency room, wherever that work is done throughout the United States.
This will end homelessness for over 1,000,000,000 people instantly and prevent economic homelessness for all 20,000,000,000 minimum wage workers (immigrants included.)
You can find more details in my 2nd book, Looking up at the Bottom Line, and on the website www.UniversalLivingWage.org.
In my third book, Livable Incomes: Solutions that Stimulate the Economy, I deal with the Prevention of Homelessness. This includes fixing the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for those who cannot work. From my perspective, looking at our capitalistic society the economy is paramount. This enables us to meet people’s basic needs.
People can either work or they can’t. At the lowest level, The Federal Government has set two standards: the Federal Minimum Wage for those who can work and SSI for those who cannot work.
Not surprisingly, the National Conference of US Mayors has said that a full time minimum wage worker cannot get into and keep (over time) a one bedroom apartment anywhere in the US. That wage is $7.25 per hour. The SSI stipend for people who cannot work is about half of that failed amount at $4.22 per hour.
Our approach to fixing this problem is different than that being promoted by the President (one size fits all) in that we recognize that we are a nation of a thousand plus economies. As a result, our formula indexes to the local cost of housing. In this fashion, if someone puts in 40 units of work (be it from one job or more) they will be able to afford the basics in life…food, clothing and shelter as outlined.
We have addressed the SSI standard in a similar fashion.
Since we devised our formula in 1997, the United States Military has converted its pay system to encompass our tenet of “Geographic Considerations” and changed from VAH, Variable Housing Allowance to BAH, Base Housing Allowance. Since then, the federal Government has similarly created “Locality Pay,” so that when people are transferred to a more expensive area, they are compensated.
Now it’s just, We The People, who are not supported this concept. As a result, 3.5 million people will again fall out of the work force and into homelessness again this year.
Image: 401(K) 2012
Irony is the bitter side of humor. Isn’t it funny how many military personnel survive the training and the deployment and the combat and all that goes with it – and then come back to die in the streets of the country in whose armed forces they served?
Only a few short years ago, in 2010, the federal government began requiring that homeless veterans, specifically, be counted.
Long Beach, Calif., was proud of having started a year early. The city’s homeless veterans were rather easy to count because out of a total of 846, one giant transitional housing facility housed 618 of them. Nancy Hicks wrote some details of the 2012 effort in Lincoln, Neb., which enumerated 78 homeless veterans:
The point-in-time count is taken by staff at shelters and transitional housing. The street count is taken by Lincoln police, Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach, Cedars Street Outreach and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, with cross referencing done to identify duplicate individuals.
The government plan to house all veterans by 2015 was well underway. Steve Vogel of the Washingon Post wrote:
More than 37,000 veterans have been housed using HUD Section 8 housing vouchers, which are coupled with support from case managers and access to VA health care…The decline in veterans’ homelessness, from 67,495 in January 2011 to 62,619 in January 2012, followed a 12 percent reduction between 2010 and 2011.
The Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) program was credited with making an impact, and the government tripled the previous year’s allotment to Supportive Services for Veterans Families, promising $300 million for 2013. The January 2013 “Point-in-Time” estimate, extrapolated with fancy formulas from incomplete data, indicated a 24% drop in veteran homelessness nationwide. Six months later in California, Gale Holland wrote:
A business group said Friday that 53,000 people, including 33,000 veterans, will join Los Angeles County’s homeless ranks by 2016, the deadline the group had set to get former soldiers and chronic transients off the streets for good.
Six months after that, USA Today reported that in 2013, nearly 50,000 military personnel back from the Afghanistan and Iraq wars were “either homeless or in a federal program aimed at keeping them off the streets,” and that number was three times what it had been in 2011. A VA spokesperson offered an interesting perspective, suggesting that the number of homeless vets from those conflicts had increased only because the VA was searching for them more diligently. A children’s advocacy organization announced that one-fourth of the people experiencing homelessness are either veteran, or the spouses or children of veterans.
Joel Blau of Stony Brook University’s School of Social Welfare compared homeless statistics to the unemployment rate. Since the number does not include people who have run out of benefits, it is really twice as high as it seems. Similarly, many people are not counted as homeless because they are in hospitals or rehab facilities or psych wards, or incarcerated, or simply living invisibly in cars.
(to be continued…)
Source: “Inside City Hall: Veterans to be a focus of LB homeless count,” PressTelegram.com, 12/28/10
Source: “Homeless count highest since 2006, when it started,” JournalStar.com, 10/14/12
Source: “Veteran homeless drops 7 percent, VA says,” WashingtonPost.com, 12/10/12
Source: “Task force projects 50,000 more homeless in L.A. County by 2016,” LATimes.com, 07/12/13
Source: “Homelessness surges among veterans of recent wars,” USAToday.com, 01/16/14
Source: “Homeless: More People Live on the Streets Amid Arctic Blasts than Stats Show,” LongIslandPress.com, 02/01/14
Image by North Charleston
The phrase “falsified records” sounds bad in any discussion about government, and “systemic cover-up” sounds even worse. In May, Eric Shinseki was left with no choice but to resign as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, despite reducing veteran homelessness by 24%, and earning praise from the President. Dan Roberts reported for The Guardian:
Speaking to a conference of homeless groups, the veterans affairs secretary revealed that his internal investigation had now confirmed a report by the independent inspector general that the problems spread far beyond initial revelations in Phoenix.
What was being covered up was a gigantic backlog of cases, each one representing a veteran needing medical care. Many chronically ill veterans died waiting for diagnostic appointments or hospital admission. At first it looked like only a few VA facilities harbored irregularities, but as investigation continued, a widespread pattern of misconduct became evident. Like a true leader, Shinseki took personal responsibility – justified or not – for the “systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity” that plagues the system.
Last week Shinseki’s replacement, Robert McDonald, announced plans to fire at least 40 high-ranking VA employees, and maybe as many as 1,000. He wants to hire 28,000 additional medical professionals, including 2,500 specialists in mental health. It would seem that the nation’s second-largest bureaucracy also needs translators to help the intended beneficiaries figure it out. Journalist Siri Srinivas of The Guardian interviewed Jason Hansman, an official of IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America):
Hansman explains that there are thousands of resources offered by the departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs, but these are complicated and exist in silos, and vets are expected to navigate them on their own.
Shad Meshad, founder of the National Veterans Foundation, sees the VA as a bloated entity into which hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars are pumped with disproportionately paltry results. He told Srinivas, “It doesn’t work and it hasn’t worked for 50 or 60 years.”
Sometimes, it does work – as reported by Bill Briggs, who became acquainted with 38-year-old Marine and Army veteran Louie Serrano, now employed by a civilian firm and earning a very good salary. But Serrano cannot forget the extremely long and bumpy road he traveled, nor the fact that thousands of his fellow vets are still trying to follow that road to a place of help and healing. Briggs writes,
Serrano, who exited the military in 2004…was having trouble sleeping and focusing at work. He thinks those were possible remnants from his final deployment: helping coordinate the care of wounded locals and troops flown from Afghanistan and Iraq to his post at a U.S. military hospital in Germany.
Along with depression and tinnitus, he had knee and back problems. At the VA center in Loma Linda, California, a mental health counselor told him there was nothing wrong. Serrano scratched the Veterans Administration off his friend list and turned his back on it for years – which, many critics claim, is exactly the point. Faced with unanswered phone calls, long waits, difficulty in scheduling, and uncaring responses, many veterans feel that the neglect is purposeful, aimed at making clients feel so rejected, they will just give up.
This cultivated indifference added years to Serrano’s period of wandering in the wilderness, and he claims that many others have become equally hopeless and fed up, telling the reporter:
A lot of veterans are off the grid, living in the mountains, below underpasses. A lot of those veterans did go and ask the VA for help. But if they didn’t get the help they needed, they said, ‘Screw the VA, we’ll do it on our own.’
Source: “Eric Shinseki resigns over Veterans Affairs healthcare scandal,” TheGuardian.com, 05/30/14
Source: “’They don’t care’: how a homeless army veteran was forgotten by the VA,” TheGuardian.com, 11/11/14
Source: “In From the Cold: One Veteran’s Journey Out of Homelessness,” NBCNews.com, 11/12/14
Image by DVIDSHUB
Every now and then, a news story appears that promises this or that kind of housing for a certain number of homeless veterans in a certain place. The project is announced with great fanfare, but the inevitable snags and push-backs get less publicity. Sometimes, the public is lulled by reports that action will be taken on an issue, and forgets to follow up to see if anything actually got done.
In St. Louis, Missouri, in January, the local point-in-time count identified 1,328 people experiencing homelessness, of whom 151 were military veterans. Among them, 100 were already in transitional housing. In July, the remaining 51 moved into apartments thanks to Operation:Reveille. A contemporary news report said,
Based on the veteran’s needs, he or she will receive services that include housing assistance, employment opportunities, intense case management, substance abuse treatment, health and mental health treatment, transportation, food, financial counseling and related social services.
Each vet would have a list of community resources, a bus pass, a peer-support member, and a case manager to tie it all together. It all sounds great, right? St. Louis congratulated itself in glowing terms:
The City’s Department of Human Services will develop a system of service that ensures a veteran never again sleeps on the streets in the City of St. Louis or in an emergency shelter….The City of St. Louis is positioned to become the first city in the country to end homelessness among military veterans.
A few months later, in October, Jesse Bogan reported for Stripes on the outcome of the program. The veterans had moved in to their new apartments believing that all their needs would be met for up to a year, if necessary. The ultimate goal, of course, was self-sufficiency, and by this time 13 residents had jobs and others were interviewing with prospective employers.
But there were problems. The power was turned off in three vets’ apartments, and five more had received final warnings of imminent disconnection. They were under the impression that the nonprofit agency providing case management, Gateway 180, would pay the electricity bills, but this turned out not to be so. Gateway 180 said it passed the bills along to the city, which was supposed to pay out of the federal funding. According to the city government website,
Operation:Reveille is funded primarily with $750,000 of existing Emergency Solutions Grants Program funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Additional funds from other local, private and federal sources will also be used.
But somehow the bills were not paid. Operation:Reveille lists 21 partner organizations, which is almost one organization for every 2 individuals receiving help. Maybe the broth was spoiled by the multiplicity of chefs in the kitchen, but apparently the city reneged on its financial responsibility agreements and, in the words of Gateway 180’s executive director Kathleen Heinz Beach, the collaboration became “a contractual nightmare.” Bogan reported:
Gateway wasn’t responsible to pay bills for the veterans, rather provide mental health assessments and case management. But the first month’s rent wasn’t being paid. Landlords were getting antsy, Beach said, so Gateway 180 finally stepped in to pay it. She said the city later reimbursed her agency for August and September rent.
One particular Operation:Reveille tenant had moved in already owing the electric company $500 from non-payment of services in the past, and the rule for such a contingency was either non-existent or misunderstood by the case workers. Why wasn’t the protocol for this and many other situations clearly spelled out? And why, right from the start, did the city drag its feet on meeting its obligations?
Gateway 180 said it would continue to pay some bills, but that doing so would reduce the total benefit for each vet, so its financial duty to the program would run out before year’s end.
The Odd Man Out
Only one of the 51 Operation:Reveille veterans had actually seen combat, and he was being ejected from the program for falling asleep with food on the stove and starting a fire. Yes, this antisocial behavior endangers others. But isn’t the totally out-of-touch, incompetent individual exactly the person who needs help most? There is no word on whether he returned to the street or was placed in some institution with more supervision.
There is, however, news of a 44-unit apartment building involved in Operation:Reveille, which is currently on the real estate market. Would it be too cynical to wonder if it was it bought as an investment and fixed up with taxpayers’ money? The notice says:
Great Apartment Complex that has been completely renovated… The owner has begun bringing in a lot of Veterans through multiple subsidized programs, such as VASH, Operation Reveille, St Patrick’s Center, & US Vets. Property is being SOLD “As Is.”
Source: “Operation: Reveille,” stlouis-mo.gov,July 31, 2014
Source: “Highly publicized homeless veterans housing program hits snags,” Stripes.com, October 2, 2014
Image by Paul Sableman
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) often results from or is associated with traumatic brain injury. Among people experiencing homelessness, head injuries are common, sometimes inflicted in childhood by abusive relatives. Many people who currently experience homelessness also struggle with PTSD, and often express their pain in self-destructive or anti-social ways. A large number of military veterans are homeless, and many of them have brain damage and/or PTSD, either diagnosed or unrecognized.
Two recent House the Homeless posts reviewed Jeremy Schwartz’s shocking story of the VA’s investment in a mobile magnetic resonance imaging scanner that was guaranteed to produce remarkable knowledge and help veterans. It was promised that the big, expensive MRI device would take pictures of brains, and the research was supposed to help heal traumatic brain injuries. This, in turn, was supposed to eventually alleviate PTSD (and indirectly, homelessness) among veterans. As we have seen, it never happened. Here is more information about the fate from which the mobile MRI was supposed to save American military personnel.
For the New Statesman, investigative journalist Willard Foxton described the aftermath of his combat reporting assignment, a full-blown case of PTSD, a condition which has been called “battle fatigue,” “combat neurosis,” “operational exhaustion” and many other terms. He still attends support groups and describes such challenges as the social awkwardness of having to say, “Please don’t touch me, I have PTSD.” But that is the least of it. He writes,
You live in a world where suddenly you can be pushed into re-experiencing something awful at a moment’s notice…I was a mess…I didn’t want to talk about it. I knew something was very wrong, but I kept putting off doing something about it. I didn’t want to admit to myself I’d gone mad. I was incredibly embarrassed about the fact I’d often wake up my housemates, screaming.
PTSD causes insomnia, and the absence of restful sleep affects concentration, patience, temper, judgment, intelligence, accident-proneness, mood, and memory. Insufficient sleep can contribute to obesity, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke. Imagine someone with chronic insomnia trying to sleep in a crowded, noisy shelter or on the street. Now imagine that person trying to hold a job. Even with no additional physical disabilities, sleep deprivation alone can devastate a person’s life.
Another quite vivid account of living with PTSD comes from poet and novelist Robert Graves, who recorded his World War I experience with “shell shock” or “neurasthenia.”
One Man’s Mission
George Taylor of Florida returned from the Vietnam conflict with PTSD and now literally beats the bushes searching for homeless veterans. He brings them the necessities of life along with information about how to apply for VA benefits. He learned that staying busy helping others is therapeutic for him, so much so that he founded an organization, National Veterans Homeless Support, with the motto “Rescuing Veterans Lost in America.” It has sponsored 16 Stand Down events and opened 5 transitional housing units that can hold up to 18 veterans for periods as long as 2 years. Please visit the NVHS site to learn what help is needed.
How do ordinary citizens feel about all this? Consider this excerpt is from an essay by Richard Aberdeen, owner of Freedom Tracks Records:
Regardless of religious, political or other persuasion, there is no excuse for citizens of the United States to allow even one veteran to be homeless…Do Americans who ignore the plight of homeless veterans really support the troops? Can we march in parades, waving flags and pretending to be patriotic, while we continue to ignore our growing homeless population – even when we know that the causes of homelessness can strike almost anyone at any time, no matter their strength of character?
Source: “The scars you don’t see: what it’s like to live with PTSD,” NewStatesman.com, May 2, 2013
Source: “10 Things to Hate About Sleep Loss,” WebMD.com, undated
Source: “This Veteran Literally Searches Through Shrubbery for Homeless Soldiers
Needing Assistance,” NationSwell.com, October 16, 2014
Source: “Article: Why Are There Homeless Veterans in America? | OpEdNews,” OpEdNews.com, December 13, 2013
Image by DVIDSHUB