Pilot Program in Massachusetts Links Vulnerable Veterans to Housing and Services Quickly

In Massachusetts, the Department of Veterans Services (DVS) has long been a lead player in coordinating efforts to help Veterans in need. Between 2010 and 2011 Veteran Homelessness declined in Massachusetts by over 20%. USICH spoke with Claire Makrinikolas, the Director of Housing for the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services, about state efforts to end Veteran homelessness and about the Statewide Housing Advocacy Reintegration and Prevention (SHARP) pilot program which targets Massachusetts most vulnerable Veterans.

Massachusetts has developed intentional and strategic relationships with partners across many systems. DVS works closely with the Department of Veterans Affairs, including all local Veteran’s Administration Medical Centers, Continuums of Care, public housing agencies, the State Interagency Council on Housing and Homelessness, and 32 leading service providers around the Commonwealth.

The goals of these collaborative relationships are to share evidence-based practices, data, results, and measurements, to assess available programs and roles across the commonwealth so as not to duplicate efforts since all the collaborative partners are working for and serving the same population, and to develop new innovative programs that can use available resources most efficiently. One example of an innovative program that came out of a collaborative effort between DVS and the VA, with services and support from local VAMCs, service providers, and housing agencies, is the Statewide Housing Advocacy Reintegration and Prevention Program (SHARP).

SHARP is a peer-to-peer pilot project with the goal of reaching the most vulnerable Veterans who are experiencing chronic homelessness and connecting them to immediate services and housing, and then making a quick connection to permanent supportive housing using HUD-VASH vouchers.

The program has six staff consisting of four peer specialists, one substance abuse counselor, and one psychiatrist who are supported by a 24/7 hotline. Two VA social workers also work closely with the peer specialists. The peer specialists perform outreach and act as casemanagers.  Makrinikolas said, “The peer specialists have been very successful at breaking down the blockades that can arise between the Veteran in need and the services that will help them get better. They do this both on the Veteran side by building a relationship of understanding and shared background and they do it on the services side by not taking no for an answer when it comes to getting the Veteran the care they need immediately.”

As an example, a peer specialist was able to build a rapport with a male Veteran who had lived unsheltered for the better part of 20 years. He had been approached many times in the past and always adamantly refused shelter and services. The peer was able to reach him by building trust, by talking to him about shared experiences, and by offering help on his terms. In another example, a peer brought an elderly female Veteran who had significant physical and mental health issues to a local VAMC where they were told they could not get an appointment. The peer was able to act on the Veteran’s behalf, working with the VA worker to facilitate the VA’s “no wrong door” approach to help the Veteran in need get an immediate appointment in this case. By being persistent and acting as an advocate for the Veteran, they were able to get the Veteran an appointment and the care she needed. “This was critical because with Veterans who have such extreme health and psychological needs, the sense of urgency has to be heightened to make sure the Veteran gets in the door immediately,” explained Makrinikolas.  

In the first six weeks of the SHARP program, 50 Veterans experiencing chronic homelessness were given HUD-VASH vouchers and placed in permanent supportive housing. Since then an additional 56 Veterans experiencing chronic homelessness have been housed.  These numbers exceeded expectations and DVS and VA are talking about expanding the program to other sites.