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Homes for the Brave

Tue, May 26, 2015

by Brian Dudley
They served us. Now it’s time we served them.
It’s a sentiment shared by federal, state and community organizations across Chicago that have joined forces in an attempt to end veteran homelessness here by the end of 2015.
The partnership coalesces numerous veteran and homelessness programs including the Obama Administration’s Opening Doors project, Zero: 2016, the Mayors Challenge to End Homelessness and the 25 Cities Initiative.
Lisa Mayse-Lillig, VP of Programs at All Chicago, says the coalition of service providers, donors, advocates and homeless people themselves must house at least 233 veterans each month in order to meet the goal of ending veterans’ homelessness by the end of this year.
Organizers are confident the goal is obtainable but acknowledged certain obstacles, including the necessity to increase available housing stock, difficulties in establishing an accurate homeless veteran count and the challenge of connecting veterans to supportive services.
“I think we probably can get this done if we change our mentality that we need to assist and support these folks rather than shun them and throw them into a mission,” says Ann Brown, medical director at Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center (Jesse Brown VAMC).
The coalition utilizes a housing-first model that places individuals into housing without precondition and then uses wraparound care and rigorous case management to thereafter address the underlying conditions that resulted in homelessness.
“We have to change how we do business,” says Brown. “It’s a change in mentality. We don’t want to put everyone in shelters. It’s changing from getting them off the street into a shelter to getting them off the street with stable housing with wraparound services.”
The challenge, according to Brown, is for the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and community partners to work with landlords to get them to accept the housing-first model. “Folks are housed even if they may not be clean [from substances] for three months or don’t necessarily have a job,” she says. “But we put them in a house and then case manage them to where they can be successful and self-sustaining.”
Community organizations are focusing on efforts to educate landlords and property owners. All Chicago is hosting an event with community stakeholders in May to address housing stock concerns, and the Corporation for Supportive Housing routinely trains organizations, including the VA, on how to conduct landlord outreach.
At Jesse Brown VAMC staff members host housing fairs designed to allow potential landlords to interact with homeless veterans and get details from experts regarding the housing-first model.
“We’re doing a lot of education with our landlords,” says Regina Freeman-Hodges, supervisory social worker at Jesse Brown VAMC, “making sure they truly understand the CHA process and what that means.” The VA reviews the CHA application and inspection process with potential landlords and brings in current landlords to answer questions. Case managers and social workers then work with property owners after a veteran is housed to address any issues.
Through the partnership, Chicago veterans have access to a variety of housing programs from both the VA and community groups, including affordable housing, rapid rehousing, market rate housing and various vouchers covering long term housing subsidies. Even dishonorably discharged veterans, who don’t qualify for VA programs, can apply for programs open to all civilians.
The partnership also provides veterans a broad range of employment programs, job training, case management, counseling and medical services.
According to information provided by Jesse Brown VAMC, there has been a spike in the number of veterans housed with VA programs each month so far this year. In March, 85 veterans were transitioned, up from 39, 33 and 44 in previous months.
In April, HUD awarded the CHA an additional $1.8 million for HUD-VASH, a housing program that combines HUD- and CHA-administered housing vouchers with case management from the VA.
HUD-VASH awards are permanent, following veterans as they move within communities or across state lines. The VA also oversees other housing initiatives including Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) and Grant and Per Diem (GPD) programs.
Over 870 veterans in Chicago are currently enrolled in the HUD-VASH program and the awarded money will fund housing for an additional 199 veterans.
This increase is substantial but alone is not enough tip the scales.
Jesse Brown VAMC estimates over 2,300 homeless veterans live in Chicago streets based on information entered in its Homeless Management Evaluation System (HOMES). This number, however, is uncorroborated by partner agencies in the city though it is still used as a baseline to establish housing goals.
At issue is the use of separate databases.
As part of the push to coordinate efforts, community organizations in Chicago chose the Homeless Management Information System (HMIS) to monitor the number of area homeless and to track movement and care. Many shelters not previously part the system, like the Pacific Garden Mission, have switched over, allowing for a much more accurate understanding of area homelessness.
Jesse Brown VAMC is an exception. Privacy laws prevent Jesse Brown VAMC from openly sharing information collected in its HOMES database with community organizations. The Department of Veterans Affairs also doesn’t support its VA staff duplicating work by entering information into HOMES and HMIS according to information provided by the 25 Cities Initiative and confirmed by local personnel.
“We need to fix that,” says Brown, “We need to get over those privacy issues.”
In the absence of outright sharing, the VA can verify information submitted to it by outside agencies. Community partners have identified some 800 homeless veterans in HMIS and confirmed them with Jesse Brown VAMC.
Another challenge, according to Mayse-Lillig, is the VA and community groups occasionally use different definitions of homelessness. And so the goal of being able to get everybody together to say ‘we’ve got numbers’ is actually less important than saying ‘we’ve got names.’
“Until you put the names to the number and then put the people to the names you can’t house them,” says Mayse-Lillig, “because you can’t house a number.”
And so, partner organizations are also working to create a central access system to ensure any individual struggling with housing instability is presented a uniform and consistent experience in Chicago’s homeless system regardless of the point of entry. Having one system allows organizations to assess everyone in exactly the same way, track outcomes to identify the most appropriate housing solution and then match homeless individuals and families to that solution.
“If we have someone that is highly vulnerable,” says Mayse-Lillig “we’re able to see ‘Where did they sleep last night? Where were they last enrolled? What are the two shelters they sleep in most frequently.’” Outreach teams can then use this information to more easily find individuals and work to house them.
Tamara Cook, a former homeless veteran who now works as a Certified Peer Support Specialist at Jesse Brown VAMC, regularly performs outreach in area shelters. Cook says she was unaware of housing programs when she experienced homelessness and credits outreach with improving program awareness and outcomes.
“I go and I try to find homeless veterans,” she says. “I give them information about the VA system as a whole, the homeless department and HUD-VASH. I let them know what is available to them and I also if needed transport them back to the VA if they need medical care or any other type of care.”
According to Cook the idea of getting off the streets is often frightening.
“I’m talking from personal experiences of having the burden and pressures of being responsible,” she says. “That is very scary to someone who hasn’t paid a light bill or a gas bill in 20 years. When I first moved into my apartment and I got my first light bill I started crying because I didn’t know what to do.”
Other veterans are resentful and don’t trust the VA.
“Some of the veterans that we encounter on the L or outside have a negative opinion of the VA,” says Freeman-Hodges, but “a lot of those veterans don’t even realize the resources that exist currently at the VA.”
She hopes community members will step up and encourage homeless veterans encountered in streets to visit the VA and learn about the homelessness programs.
“I’ve got three guys to return to the VA,” says Cook. When she meets bitter or unconvinced veterans she asks only for the opportunity to bring them to the VA and show them a new experience. “It starts with one at a time.”
The key to getting veterans off the street, according to Cook and other experts, is to meet them where are. “We have a saying in recovery,” she says, “I’m gonna love you until you learn to love yourself. And you know that’s exactly what they did for me and that’s what I try to do for people.”
“I don’t care what you smell like. I’m gonna offer you that hug if you need one. Because somebody hugged me. The best thing you can do for anybody on the street is realize that’s a person. Stop putting homeless before the word person. That’s a person first who happens to be homeless.”

Jesse Brown VAMC Program Services for Veterans*

Case Management – The Program provides case management services at multiple levels of care including outreach to shelters, residential treatment sites, transitional housing and supported housing. The case managers assist in selecting the service or treatment options that would best meet particular needs. Veterans are encouraged to accept referrals for a physical and an evaluation of mental health and chemical dependency problems.

HUD-VASH - Is a long-term intensive case management program for homeless veterans. Eligible veterans receive ongoing case management services and receive a section 8 voucher, which subsidizes housing rental costs through a partnership between HUD and the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center.

Re-Entry Program – The program is designed to help veterans who need a variety of services upon release, including medical services, psychiatric care, substance abuse treatment, transitional housing, vocational/employment assistance and veterans’ benefit services. The goal of the program is to decrease the likelihood of re-incarceration for those leaving prison. Services include outreach and pre-release assessment services, referrals and linkages to services and social work services.

Veterans Justice Outreach – This program is designed to assist justice-involved veterans by providing linkage and referral to the VA and community programs. Case management services are provided to prevent recidivism by collaborating with law enforcement personnel and linking veterans to needed resources.

Grant Per Diem Program – Program provides housing for up to 24 months and offers case management and education to help homeless veterans achieve stability, increase skill levels and increase independence.
Veterans are linked to Primary Care Services and Jesse Brown VA Medical Center as well as mental health and substance abuse treatment services.

Supported Housing – Veterans who are able to live independently and who have an income may be referred to the Supported Housing Program. Staff will provide social work services as needed. Abstinence from alcohol and drug use is required.

Residential Treatment
– For those homeless veterans who are ready to work on Chemical Dependency and/or Mental Health issues, a referral will be made to one of the transitional halfway houses. Room and board, individual therapy and case management services are provided. Linkage is made to needed housing and employment services.

Community Resource and Referral Center
– The CRRC is being developed to provide “one stop shopping” for Homeless Veterans. The center is a resource and referral hub for homeless services and will be accessible for Homeless Veterans and their families. CRRC’s are collaborative, multiagency, multidisciplinary programs that serve the homeless and those at risk for homelessness.

H-Pact – The Homeless Patient Aligned Care Teams (H-PACT) program supports interdisciplinary care teams that integrate a housing agenda with providing care for the ongoing and evolving medical, mental health and substance abuse needs of homeless Veterans coming into the system.

Homeless Veterans Hotline 1-877-424-3838 The Hotline is intended to assist Homeless Veterans, VA Medical Centers, Federal, State and Local Partners, community agencies, service Providers and others in the community. Veterans can access trained counselors via the Hotline 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.

Veterans National Suicide Hotline Toll Free Number
1-800-273-TALK (8255)

* Information provided by Jesse Brown VAMC

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