SACRAMENTO, Calif. (WOMENSENEWS)– When the Army discharged her for drug use in May 2004, Rhiannon Duncan, a single mother in her mid-20s who served full-time in the Army, had many demons and very little sense of direction.
In August 2014, after a few years marked by drug use, homelessness and prostitution, Duncan began to stabilize when she entered a pilot program here designed for veterans like herself, for whom homelessness is often one of multiple problems.
Today, the survivor of childhood incest and drug addiction is a full-time student at the American River College, a community college in Sacramento, Calif. She has been drug-free since July 7, 2014.
Since 2011, staffers at the program here, which helped Duncan, have been following a radical strategy set by the Supportive Services for Veteran Families, a program of the Department of Veterans Affairs that prioritizes putting homeless people into apartments of their own, no strings attached.
Known as rapid rehousing, the strategy emphasizes stable, permanent housing as a primary way to end homelessness among veterans; male and female.
The VA is partnering with outside groups to help it pursue this housing-first approach through grants to community-based, nonprofits in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In its 2014-2020 strategic plan, the VA committed to improve “partnering with organizations that can best provide what we cannot or should not.”
The Sacramento program that helped Duncan is a model and one the VA is about to replicate. It is run by Volunteers of America, the giant faith-based affiliated national charity based in Alexandria, Va., which is a leading provider of services for veterans as well as other vulnerable populations. It is funded in part by the VA’s Supportive Services for Veteran Families.
In 2016, Volunteers of America will be expanding the program with startup funding from Supportive Services for Veteran Families for 19 similar programs throughout the country, a sign the program has earned the government’s confidence.
A hallmark is its liberal acceptance policy. Participants are not required to be clean or sober. They may have a criminal history. The only key criteria are that they were not dishonorably discharged and have evidence of financial hardship; a single female, for instance, should not be earning more than $1,204 a month.
Housing No Longer a Reward
Previous approaches to helping homeless people with multiple disorders positioned housing as a reward for treatment.
“It was presumed that it was necessary to treat these underlying disorders to have successful housing placements,” Ndidi Mojay, a Veterans Affairs spokesperson, said in email interview with Women’s eNews. “However, evidence does not support this approach. In fact, it appears that persons are far more likely to be successful in treatment if they are stably housed and removed from the uncertainty and trauma of homelessness.”
After housing is arranged other things follow, Mojay said, such as training in independent-living skills and treatments and programs for many of the problems frequently associated with homelessness: drug addiction, a history of trauma and mental health distress.
“SSVF [Supportive Services for Veteran Families] has been highly responsive to the needs of female veterans and families,” Mojay said, noting that 15 percent of all veterans served by the program are women and 24 percent of participants are children.
Rapid re-housing represents the most cost-effective intervention currently available to serve the homeless, according to the VA, because it reduces public expenditures commonly associated with homelessness, such as the high use of emergency and inpatient health care, prisons and shelters.
At an average cost of approximately $3,000 per household, the VA said since its inception its Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, by working through programs such as the one run by Volunteers of America in Sacramento, has placed 80 percent of all those discharged from the program into permanent housing.
Participants in the Sacramento programs find permanent housing within a three-month period, on average, after an individual assessment and at least two meetings a month with program organizers at the large facility located two blocks from a VA hospital.
Since it doesn’t provide immediate housing, the program collaborates with local shelters, something that Ricardo Galicia, one of the program’s six full-time case managers, would like to see changed.
Galicia hopes the program can get more funding to provide immediate transitional housing onsite, which he said will help veterans more efficiently. “It would be nice to have a 30-day transitional housing to know that they [the veterans] are well, have food and are there,” Galicia said in an interview in his office. “It would be great to build them up.”
Galicia said the first 30 days after a homeless veteran starts seeking help are crucial to her or his ability to complete the housing-first program and arrange continuous care.
Security Deposit, Two Months’ Rent
Blanche Scroggins, who acts as case manager for Duncan and all female veterans in the program, gave a landlord enough money to cover a security deposit and two months’ rent, first and last, so Duncan could move into the two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit that she and her children and husband call home today.
Scroggins creates a housing stabilization plan and a budget for each of her clients. Those who want more than the two required sessions a month can have counseling onsite and case management can continue for up to 12 months.
In Duncan’s case, Scroggins not only helped her find work and housing, she also helped her husband, who is not a veteran, find employment. She also worked with two agencies to help arrange Christmas gifts for Duncan’s children.
“We really need to know where they came from and where they want to go,” said Scroggins, who specializes in working with women and families, especially those afflicted with trauma. “We take the broken people and we teach them how to live differently.”
The organization also hopes to attain more grants so it can offer more follow-up on veterans after they exit the program. Currently the program tracks participants for one to two years after they leave the program. Any veteran who has gone through the program must wait three years before rejoining it.
The program is linked to hospitals, domestic violence programs, school liaisons for homeless people, law enforcement, colleges and other providers of community services for veterans in the four counties it serves: Yolo, Placer, El Dorado and Sacramento.
If a participant needs psychotherapy or drug rehabilitation, case workers can tap appropriate government-run programs such as the VA’s Addiction Recovery Treatment Services.
“It is prioritizing what is more important and needs immediate attention,” said Galicia, the case manager. “How in 90 days–which is really a short period of time–how much help I can get them in a realistic way?”
Galicia is a former army sergeant; most of the handful of caseworkers in the program are veterans. Some have suffered their own bouts of homelessness. Their qualifications vary but include a bachelor’s degree in sociology or psychology. Some are licensed drug-and-alcohol counselors. Some are trained in processing benefits.
It’s common for the case managers to feed applicants who come in hungry.
“We can work on housing, addiction, but if they are sitting right here, right now at 3:21 p.m. on this date and they’re hungry, it does not matter” said Galicia, who has encountered many homeless veterans who had not eaten for days.
Galicia emphasizes the importance of trust and empathy and establishing some of the bonds that soldiers feel for each other during military service. “I never lost a man in battlefield and I’m not going to do it now,” he said. “We need to give them some dignity. Many veterans wait too long to seek help.”
‘Hard to Reach Out and Ask for Things’
Duncan, who was homeless on and off for 12 or 13 years, agreed. “It’s hard as a veteran to reach out and ask for things,” she said. “It’s almost embarrassing but they treat you here like human beings.”
Duncan added: “Everybody here is firsthand related to veterans, so they feel our pain and they understand us.”
In 2014 the Volunteers of America Sacramento program, which has an annual budget of about $2.5 million, spent $91,000 in housing assistance for 49 female veterans. Five of the women are disabled and qualify for housing assistance as long as they need it.
Not all participants receive cash assistance and there is no minimum amount of money that grantees should give to their clients under the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program.
“In fact some veterans served require no direct financial assistance as links to employment, benefits and other resources provide the assistance necessary to support their housing stability,”
Mojay, the VA spokesperson, said.
Mojay added that nationally, about one-third of all funds distributed by the Supportive Services for Veteran Families are disbursed as cash assistance. The rest of the money pays for all the other services provided as part of a holistic approach to helping veterans cope with various problems they encounter after discharge.
Last year, for instance, Scroggins, the case manager for the program in Sacramento, helped 21 women find jobs. In addition to job placement, staffers also help participants tap VA and mainstream benefits, obtain legal assistance, financial planning advice, transportation, child care and health care.
Since it began, the Volunteers of America’s Sacramento program has helped 178 female veterans find homes, Becca Bettis, the program director, said in an email interview.
Ninety percent were still in those homes a year later, and 80 percent were still in their homes two years later. (The program stops tracking participants after two years.)
Since the pilot project launched, national agents of the VA have been conducting quarterly onsite visits each year and regional agents have maintained weekly phone calls with the program.
The program works with the Mather Community Campus, another program run by Volunteers of America that provides training and employment skills, resources and referrals.
Navigating the System
Case managers such as Scroggins try to help their clients get off drugs through individual counseling and referrals, and to find jobs. They also help spot what could be significant mental health issues and arrange treatments and referrals for homeless families and individuals transitioning out of homelessness.
Bettis, the program director, said a key part of preventing homelessness is training participants to better navigate the VA system and find out what programs–disability compensation, pensions, educational supports, vocational rehabilitation, home-loan guaranty, life insurance and monetary burial allowances –might be available to them.
Many veterans are unaware of this, finds a 2012 government report.
Andrea Readling, who served in the U.S. Coast Guard during the 1980s, fits that description. “I did not seek any help with the VA because I did not think I had any benefits available,” said the mother of three young children, who wound up homeless after losing her job as a nursing assistant.
Readling knew the VA extended benefits to homebuyers and those looking for more education. But she didn’t know that the system could also provide help for someone like her, who was losing ground rather than trying to build a future.
Readling, now 49, joined the military at 17 and was not prepared to take care of herself after leaving the military. She did not know how to use a checkbook and was unable to manage her money. Life inside the Coast Guard was easy by comparison. There she had a place to stay, food and transportation.
Many service systems do not recognize the housing needs of homeless people, whether intentionally or otherwise, and do not readily advocate for housing solutions that would result in better outcomes for their clients and their agencies, found a 2008 study by Dennis P. Culhane, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The VA has done extensive studies to realize that the housing-first model is efficient in the way that you get veterans and families in housing right away and from there a case manager to work with them to see the causes,” said Lisa DeJonge, a program manager for the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, a nonprofit with headquarters in Syracuse, N.Y., in a recent phone interview. “It’s kind of juggling.”
This three-part series was partially funded by the Solutions Journalism Network.
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