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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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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

 

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Livable Incomes: Solutions to Stimulate the Economy

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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

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Dissent on Homeless Veteran Numbers

Spirit of '45 at Navy Base MemorialIrony 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…)

Reactions?

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

 

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Money Not Helping Vets as Much as it Should

Vietnam Veteran on Active duty ServiceThe 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.’

Reactions?

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

 

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When Veteran Rescue Does Not Go According to Plan

Veterans' ResidenceEvery 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.

The Letdown

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

 

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Helping Veterans With PTSD

PTSD can derail veterans

PTSD can derail veterans

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.

Invisible Scars

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?

Reactions?

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

 

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Vital VA Project Got Off on the Wrong Foot

Phoenix

Phoenix Rises from the Ashes

If there is one state in the union where military veterans might expect to be rendered top-shelf service every time, that state would be Texas. There are two regional benefits offices (Houston is the other) and the Waco office has not been living up to the Lone Star state’s reputation for honoring vets.

Six years ago, the Waco RO (which serves Bell County and central Texas) was one of the epicenters of a scandal that affected an entire federal bureaucracy. Ultimately the Department of Veterans Affairs sent out the order to suspend all document shredding until they could figure out what was going on. Belinda J. Finn, the VA’s Assistant Inspector General for Auditing, testified before a federal House of Representatives subcommittee:

In September of 2008, we were conducting an audit of claim-related mail processing, in the Detroit Regional Office. At the suggestion of a VBA employee, we looked in the shred bins and found claim-related documents. We continued our work in the Waco, St. Louis, and St. Petersburg Regional Offices, finding a total of 132 documents, about 45 of which could have affected benefits.

Jeremy Schwartz of the Austin American-Statesman tirelessly keeps track of what the VA is up to. A couple of years back, the situation was so bad that the Waco RO had the country’s longest waiting time for claims processing.

And then it improved and got the claim processing time down to only 464 days. (Yes, that is sarcasm, and yes, that is more than a year.)

About a year ago, bureaucrats told the reporter that there was no need to hire a full-time county veterans service officer, and that there had been no complaints. A volunteer liaison officer who mostly referred calls to the Texas Veterans Commission said that he only saw five or six veterans each year. Still, the Bell County commissioners promised to improve their website by adding referral information for vets, and to hire a veterans service officer before 2014.

The latest

More recently, Schwartz has been looking into a promising and costly medical research program that somehow went off the rails and into the woods. A decade ago, the Veterans Administration okayed the spending of $6.3 million for a brain imaging center to study physical changes in the brains of soldiers before and after their tours of duty in the combat zones of Afghanistan and Iraq. Previous wars produced a lot of gunshot wounds, but in these more recent conflicts, traumatic brain injury (TMI) has been the “signature wound” which could with dark humor be called “the gift that keeps on giving.” The result of such injury is often Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can affect an individual for the remainder of his or her life, or lead to suicide, whichever comes first.

The center originally opened at UT Austin, but didn’t work out at that location. It was re-established at the Center of Excellence in Waco, where subjects would be available from both Fort Hood (before going overseas) and the VA hospitals in Waco and Temple (after returning). In 2007 a director was hired, but Dr. Robert Van Boven’s first move was to declare that already, $2.1 million had been spent on a project unrelated to traumatic brain injury.

His claims of financial misappropriation did not interest the VA, which at first declined to investigate, although later a report from the office of the agency’s inspector general partially confirmed the allegations of mismanagement. At any rate, the director was fired in 2009. He sued because he had been wrongfully terminated and retaliated against for being a whistleblower. In 2010 the case was settled for an unpublicized amount of money. For the new and much-needed project of learning more about brain damage, this was not an auspicious start.

(…more next time…)

Reactions?

Source: “Document Tampering and Mishandling at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs,” gpo.gov, 03/03/09
Source: “Troubled beginnings,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Source: “Gaps in research,” Statesman.com, 09/07/14
Image: Prairie Kittin

 

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How to Become Homeless: Be a Single Parent

Riding shotgun

Transportation to and from work, and child care, are major obstacles for many single parents.

Brooke McLay met a mother experiencing homelessness (given the pseudonym of Tori) and treated her to a grocery shopping spree, with the understanding that photos would be taken and an article written. When published, it garnered well over 1,000 online comments. Since they lived in a shelter, Tori had to bring along not only her 4- and 6-year-old daughters, but the wagon containing all their belongings, because Crisis Housing has no provision for locking anything up.

While it would have been more economical to buy a lot of cheap processed food with a long shelf life, Tori also selected fruits and vegetables because neither she nor the girls ever got enough fresh produce. But not too much, because without a refrigerator or stove, how could the perishable items be stored or cooked? There is a lot more to this fascinating piece of journalism. McLay writes,

Today, nearly one in six Americans reports running out of food at least once a year. Government food assistance requests are at an all-time high, and funding for these programs is being cut. The need for food and access to affordable fresh fruits and vegetables is no longer just something affecting the guys holding signs on the street corner. Food insecurity affects millions of suburban families. Working folks. Maybe even your neighbors.

Most single parents are female, though many single fathers face equally daunting challenges. Among other feats, the single parent has to fulfill mutually impossible imperatives and be in two places at the same time. The inability to keep up with a constant barrage of conflicting demands can knock a single parent out of the workforce and into public assistance — not a desirable outcome for anyone, including the taxpayers.

Walk a mile in their shoes

Recently, House the Homeless discussed the havoc caused by arbitrary work schedules set up for the convenience of the company. Imagine this double whammy: you hire someone for childcare, and go to work. The boss sends you home because business is slow. So now, you have to go back and do the same rotten thing to another person, and take away expected income from your child minder. Sure, you can negotiate with the sitter to accept less, because you got bumped — but however it plays out, the person may never work for you again. And as a single mom, you cannot afford to lose even one trustworthy friend.

Sometimes, a single parent is forced to make a devil’s bargain with a relative. Family togetherness and mutual help are the most wonderful things in the world, but often have a toxic side. What if the only relative you can really count on for child care, is the one who lets your already-obese child eat anything and everything? Which imperative do you follow? Answer: the one that keeps you earning a paycheck, so your kid will at least be under a roof.

When you deal in the favor bank, you must expect to put aside a certain amount of time to repay favors – more stress. And let’s face it, relatives have their own problems. Ultimately, family members can only do so much, and it’s not as if a single mom can leave her child with just anybody. Look what happened to Relisha Rudd.

Getting around

For people who don’t own cars, transportation is problematic almost everywhere. An adult with a baby or small child can, in theory, bicycle. Conveyances and modified bikes are made for every age group, but they feel risky, and are not useful in all weathers, and so on. In cities, single moms are likely to be dependent on public transportation. Imagine getting your kid up at 4 AM for a bus trip to day care, then you take another bus, and make yet another transfer, and hopefully arrive on time for your 8 AM shift.

Single mothers are tempting targets for violent criminals and con artists, and live in constant fear that the authorities will take away their kids. They belong to the “one missed paycheck” subculture, with one foot in a grim situation and the other on a banana peel. The domino effect can be brilliantly demonstrated by the biographies of thousands upon thousands of single parents and their children. This is how families become homeless.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What I Learned After Taking a Homeless Mother Grocery Shopping,” Babble.com, 08/01/14
Image by Comrade Foot

 

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Austin’s Community First Village

Alan Graham

Alan Graham of Community First Village

This post is in essence a continuation of last week’s “Exciting Development in Austin,” so a reader who missed that one might want to catch up.

What will go on there

Disabled, chronically homeless people are at a great disadvantage in many ways. In most places, the local taxpayers are also affected by the medical bills that result from so many people living in insalubrious conditions, with untreated physical maladies. Community First Village will help everyone – the residents, by enabling their improved health; and the larger community, by reducing the hospital bills that result from life in the rough.

Located outside Austin, CFV will be a serene and health-positive environment where a great deal of healing and strengthening will take place. Adequate nutrition, nights of unbroken sleep, and an on-site medical facility will help the residents regain levels of vitality and functionality they have not felt for years. Most will be able to actively take part and contribute to the village’s success. We mentioned many activities last time, and people are already making furniture and growing crops.

A strong recycling program is planned. In the carpentry and welding workshops, skills will be taught and learned. The place will have WiFi, so a motivated person could conceivably sell crafts and other products online. The literature speaks of “micro-business opportunities for employment for residents interested in finding a job with employers assisting within this program,” and also suggests possibilities for occasional work at the nearby Travis Exposition Center.

Vision and hard work

The project’s first phase is expected to be done by the spring of 2015. It was kicked off by a groundbreaking ceremony in late August, with some of the prospective residents turning over symbolic shovelfuls of earth.

On that occasion, House Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) received heartfelt thanks, because he sponsored a bill that exempts CFV from property taxes. Passing that bill will no doubt turn out to be one of the smartest moves the legislature ever made. As far as other people and entities who deserve thanks, please forgive any omissions, and post a comment at the end to set things straight!


The development firm Bury Inc. is involved with the community’s design and MileStone Community Builders LLC with the actualization. H-E-B is helping to start up the commissary, and the local nonprofit organization Caritas will provide caseworkers. Students from the University of Texas School of Architecture designed many of the structures. At Lake Travis High School, the student council and cheerleaders spearheaded a fund drive called “Bring the Homeless Home” which raised $10,000. And of course thousands of volunteers have pitched in and will be donating even more time and energy going forward.

Paying for their stay

Dealing with a hardcore bureaucracy like Social Security is a daunting task even for a housed person with access to all the needed papers and a fully-operational consciousness. For someone who doesn’t own a file cabinet and suffers from physical limitations, pain, and disorientation, these challenges can seem insurmountable. House the Homeless does an amazing job of helping individuals apply for SSI disability status so they can use their benefits to pay the very reasonable rent.

The main driving force is Alan Graham, whose outreach ministry Mobile Loaves and Fishes has been working toward the project for years. Graham, described by journalist Marty Toohey as “a devout man with a sly sense of humor,” sees Community First Village Community as a “promised land” for people who have experienced some of the worst aspects of life on earth. After a recent tour of the property, Toohey wrote:

Graham was careful to note the place is intended to serve the chronically homeless — the portion of the homeless population that, due to mental illness or substance abuse or other issues, cannot keep a home under typical circumstances. For chronically homeless people, said Graham, who is considered one of the nation’s experts on the subject, halfway houses and other “transitional housing” are ultimately ineffective.

One of the most exciting results so far is how Graham and the rest of the CFV support system have inspired other municipalities to step up. A recent OregonLive.com headline reads,

Tiny houses as affordable housing? Austin beats Portland to punch, Eugene follows suit

Is that impressive, or what? Closer to home, a local blogger known as “The Lone Spanger” wrote,

It seems to me that with the continued support of volunteers, donors, and the city, CFV will surely be a success story in the history of homeless housing developments and provide a progressive model for future housing coordinators to follow. I’m looking forward to watching the program blossom and hope it makes a positive impact on the city’s morale towards encouraging more communities like this.

Please visit the Community First Village website to see how you can help!

Reactions?

Source: “Westbanker inspires homeless village,” Statesman.com, 09/03/14
Source: “LTHS students work together to help homeless,” Statesman.com, 09/24/14
Source: “Austin project takes new approach in aiding homeless by avoiding ‘transitional housing’,” TheRepublic.com, 09/18/14
Source: “Tiny houses as affordable housing? Austin beats Portland to punch, Eugene follows suit,” OregonLive.com, 08/22/12
Source: “Hope For the Homeless At Community First Village,” ChallengerNewspaper.org, 08/19/14
Source: “Lake Travis HS Cavaliers – Bring the Homeless Home,” YouTube
Image by mlfnow

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