VA Programs to Prevent and End Homelessness Among Veterans

An Interview with Lisa Pape

The innovative HUD-VASH program receives a lot of attention for its success in housing the most vulnerable Veterans who have been living unsheltered for an extended period of time. This intervention, meant for Veterans experiencing chronic homelessness, is, in its current form, a relatively recent addition to the portfolio of Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) programs meant to assist low-income Veterans or Veterans experiencing homelessness. Although VASH is a critical tool in ending Veterans’ homelessness, the VA has other programs available that are needed to make sure all Veterans have an opportunity to exit homelessness. It is important for communities to be aware of all the supports and programs the VA has to offer for Veterans in need.

USICH spoke to Lisa Pape, the National Director of Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Homeless Programs, about how community providers can work with VA to achieve greater success in serving Veterans by using all the available resources and what VA is focused on in 2012 to make progress towards the 2015 goal of ending Veteran homelessness.

“The VA is first and foremost a healthcare system for Veterans. It is the biggest and best continuum of care for homeless services for Veterans in the country,” Ms. Pape said. The majority of VA programs are administered through the Veterans Health Administration, which operates programs out of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers or community-based VA clinics.

USICH’s conversation with Ms. Pape centered on three areas of focus for serving Veterans experiencing homelessness: outreach, treatment, and prevention. These three areas, and the programs that are within these areas, work together with VA benefits and health care to provide further supports for those in need. Ms. Pape also believes there is opportunity in these three areas for service providers outside of the VA to connect Veterans to resources. 

Outreach

The primary outreach program administered by VA is the Health Care for Homeless Veterans program. Social workers, case managers, and nurses go out into the community to homeless service providers and into the streets to engage Veterans in need and connect them to services. VA also provides outreach at Stand Down events in communities throughout the year. Stand Downs bring together a spectrum of service providers under one roof for a short period of time (one-three days). Veterans who attend are able to connect to a wide array of services in one place. The Veterans Justice Outreach initiative also works with Veterans either currently experiencing homelessness or at-risk of homelessness—those currently in jail or prison or involved in the criminal justice system. Ms. Pape noted that one way VAMCs and community organizations can make a stronger impact in outreach is to connect right away: 

A great way to partner with VAMCs and use non-VASH resources to their greatest effect is to connect with outreach teams at VA. These teams are used to working in the community and can help connect the eligible Veterans in your program to available VA resources. Instead of having just one organization go out, send a team with one person from the community and one from VA. Instead of the Veteran getting two different referrals with two different outreach occurrences, they can be given all the information available at VA and in other community organizations. This promotes easier access for all service options for the Veteran.

Treatment 

As Ms. Pape mentioned, the Veterans Health Administration is one of the most comprehensive systems of care for behavioral and physical health for Veterans. “The main treatment program we have for Veterans is the Domiciliary Care program, which is a residential facility for Veterans working through substance abuse or severe mental health issues,” noted Ms. Pape. This program is for those who need a highly supervised care environment combined with housing to achieve stability. 

Another treatment program that often gets forgotten is the Veterans Dental Program. During a crisis such as homelessness, one of the last things a Veteran may be thinking about is his or her teeth. However, we [VHA] kept hearing over and over that Veterans saw getting their teeth fixed as a step towards recovery. Once they got into school or a training program, they found it very difficult to feel confident with teeth that were not well kept. This program helps them to take one of the last full steps to recovery.

The health care facilities and programs available to Veterans are comprehensive, but the same facilities and care are not available in VAMCs for Veteran families. To solve this problem and ensure that Veterans in poverty with families can achieve stability and have access to care, Ms. Pape recommends creating partnerships with organizations that work with families and children. “We are not legally able to give Veteran families care at VA facilities, but we also know that it is not a good idea to split up families in crisis. Connections with these community organizations may help VAMCs work to get the entire family support.”

Prevention

Ms. Pape noted that prevention services and programs are a major focus of VA in 2012 in order to make progress towards the 2015 goal. “We’ve been able to improve our processes and programs for Veterans once they fall into homelessness with our outreach and treatment programs, but what we really need to do is stop it from happening in the first place,” said Ms. Pape. One of the programs VA implements through community service providers is the Supportive Services for Veterans Families (SSVF) program. Community partners are given flexibility on what type of supports and services they believe are most needed for families in their particular community—this can be short-term rental assistance, transportation help, child care subsidies, or mortgage help, for example. The goal of this program is to keep low-income families in their homes and catch them before they become homeless. This program also helps to alleviate the problem of fragmentation between care for a Veteran and care for his family.

Community partnerships are critical at every level of housing and health crisis for a Veteran and their family, but Ms., Pape noted that these community partnerships can be especially critical to prevent further crisis among Veterans and their families if they are at-risk. “For community organizations working with Veterans, I suggest they get acquainted with their VAMC network homeless coordinator and let other connections in the service sector know about the resources at VAMC.” Each VAMC also puts on an annual Veterans Summit. These are held at different times every year and “the goal is to synchronize the efforts in a community. They’re a great way for leaders in the government and the service sector to get introduced to the VA system and for organizations like HUD CoCs and Human Services to get linked up and share strategies.”

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