With help from rocker Jon Bon Jovi, VA tackles veteran homelessness

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 12, 2012 


Army veteran Vincent Brown, 52, who became homeless in 2005 after his house burned down


— On a cold night in Monmouth County, N.J., a lone dishwasher stayed late, taking on extra work to buy time. The restaurant’s owners, trying to close up, guessed that the man had no place to go. And when they tried to find him one, they struck out.

The restaurant is owned by rock legend Jon Bon Jovi’s foundation, and Bon Jovi and his wife, Dorothea Hurley, discovered that night that finding services for the homeless is no easy task. For the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is trying to tackle the serious problem of veterans’ homelessness, figuring out how to make the task easier is a pivotal goal.

After Bon Jovi couldn’t find information that night, he wondered whether he could use technology to help him do so. Months later, he had a conversation with then-White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra, and now Bon Jovi’s vision of real-time access to services for the homeless is part of the VA’s push to eliminate veteran homelessness.

“Fighting homelessness doesn’t happen behind the desk – unless it’s my desk. It happens out in the field,” said Jonah Czerwinski, the director of the Veterans Affairs Innovation Initiative, which pairs government and nongovernment individuals to tackle veteran challenges. “If you can’t take the data and information with you, you are inherently hobbled in your ability to make great progress.”

Recognizing its inability to serve the veteran community efficiently when it came to homelessness, the VA announced a strategic plan in 2009 to end veteran homelessness by 2015.

“Ending veterans’ homelessness is a test of all that we do at VA,” VA Secretary Eric Shinseki said at a conference in late May. “Among many others, it’s a test of our outreach efforts, mental health services, substance abuse treatments, hiring initiatives, educational benefits and housing programs.”

In January 2011, the VA estimated that on a single night there were 67,495 homeless veterans nationwide. Further, one out of every six men and women in America’s homeless shelters are veterans, and veterans are 50 percent more likely to fall into homelessness than other Americans are, according to the VA.

The VA’s plan is ambitious – perhaps a bit too optimistic, in the eyes of some experts – and contains several elements. The agenda encompasses a range of interventions and services, including mental health and substance use treatment, and focuses on partnering with local communities and providing individualized case management.

It’s aimed at veterans such as Deborah A. Lee-Crite, 56, who’s lived for the past six months at the Chesapeake Veterans House, a temporary housing facility in Washington.

As a 10th-grader watching her cousin’s friend in uniform, Lee-Crite knew she wanted to go into military service. From 1974 to 1984, she served in the Army, helping with transportation and aircraft supplies.

After she left the military, lost her son in a tragedy and then lost her job, Lee-Crite went to live in a women’s shelter. She eventually found herself at the VA.

“I’ve grown a lot here, shared a lot here, made a lot of new friends here,” Lee-Crite said. At the Chesapeake center, residents take life-skills classes, go to appointments, learn about VA opportunities and attend social events.

Many frequent the neighboring Southeast Veterans Service Center, an all-male center that includes a medical clinic and cafeteria. Rooms there are single occupancy, and the building – with a front desk and resident adviser – resembles a college dorm.

In the past, VA services were tailored to care and treatment. Now they’re also focused on prevention, said Pete Dougherty, the acting executive director of the VA’s Homeless Veterans Initiative Office.

“They were using yesterday’s movement models,” Neil Donovan, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “When they were given this really ambitious goal, they had to do an incredibly fast turnaround.”

To accomplish this, the VA is addressing outreach and education, treatment, prevention, housing and supportive services, employment benefits and community partnerships.

Since fiscal year 2009, when the shift took place, the VA has seen results. Its joint program with the Department of Housing and Urban Development has helped nearly 40,000 veterans get off the streets, according to HUD.

The VA “became broader, had more money, more focus and national leadership,” said Steve Berg, the vice president for programs and policy at the National Alliance to End Homelessness.

Dougherty, who’s been working to end veteran homelessness for more than 20 years, said he was pleased with the shift toward early intervention and the emphasis on partnership beyond VA affiliates.

“We now have a vision to end this, not just manage it,” he said.

Vincent Maurice Brown, 52, a veteran at the Southeast Veterans Service Center, has seen the results firsthand.

“There was one time I wasn’t too happy, wouldn’t smile too much,” Brown said. “But since I’ve been here, I’m doing a lot of smiling.”

Brown, who served in the Army for 20 years, became homeless after his house burned down in 2005. His mother had just died and he hadn’t secured a trade since he returned home in 1981.

“This band I have on my arm, it says, ‘Expect the impossible,’ ” he said, pointing to the blue rubber bracelet. “I’ve been wearing this band since 2007. The impossible has been happening, and it’s only getting better.”

Brown, who’s been at the center for eight months, recently received a voucher to move into permanent housing in late July via an updated VA program co-sponsored with HUD.

The VA recently partnered with 85 organizations to tackle homelessness, Dougherty said. Nearly $60 million was awarded to the nonprofit organizations last fall for prevention and rapid re-housing, and the VA is expected to award $100 million more soon, he added.

One recently adopted program provides short-term rental, landlord and employment assistance to homeless veterans. A second program – the one run jointly with HUD – provides veterans with permanent housing, case management and access to medical services.

The VA also has expanded its homeless grant program, which offers veterans up to two years of housing and support services, created a national 24/7 call center and implemented Project REACH, the idea that sprang from Bon Jovi’s discussion with Chopra.

Short for “Real-Time Electronic Access for Caregivers and the Homeless,” Project REACH is a competition that challenges software designers to create a smartphone and Web application to help homeless veterans reach the services they need.

Launched in March, the challenge gave developers strict criteria. The winner, who’ll get $25,000, will be announced in November after tests at the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Kitchen restaurant.

In addition to shelter bed availability, location and contact information, the apps will provide access to health care, mental health care, food, transportation, VA facilities and employment opportunities.

Even with celebrity power, though, can the VA end veteran homelessness by 2015?

Donovan is worried about the service members who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Homelessness is a gradual process, he said, and it will take about five years before some of those vets become homeless.

Even so, Donovan remains optimistic that homelessness can get to a “controlled level.”

“Are you going to say with a straight face that you can house all homeless veterans?” he asked. “Even with more money there are still going to be some unwilling – for a myriad of reasons – to be housed.”

Brown, the veteran at the Southeast center, said the goal could take up to 30 years to reach because of stubborn veterans.

“They don’t want to believe in themselves,” he said. “They don’t think they can anymore. That’s where you see the look that they don’t care about themselves or anyone else. That’s why a lot of people just walk by them like they’re furniture.”

Email: fmohamed@mcclatchydc.com

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