VA Helpline Leaving Homeless Veterans Out in the Cold

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs is facing renewed criticism over its inability to properly meet the needs of former service members – this time over the poor operation of a call center established to aid homeless vets.

A recent inspector general’s report revealed that homeless and at-risk veterans who contacted the call center, which costs $3 million a year to operate, often experienced problems either getting in touch with counselors or receiving the necessary referrals for services.

Of the estimated 79,500 homeless veterans who contacted the hotline in fiscal year 2013, the report determined that the only thing 27 percent of those contacting the hotline could do is leave a message on an answering machine because counselors were unavailable to take calls. About 16 percent of the callers could not receive a necessary referral to VA medical facilities because the calls left on the answering machine were either inaudible or failed to provide contact information. And 4 percent failed to receive a referral to VA medical facilities despite having provided all necessary information.

The department fell short in about 40,500 incidences, according to the report.

Lisa Pape, executive director for homeless programs at the Veterans Health Administration, told members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee reviewing the homeless problem that she regrets "that any veteran calling for referrals did not get the service they requested." The agency is implementing measures intended to address the problem, she said, adding that “management is looking at how to address issues in performance.”

The department already has rescheduled employee hours to ensure that phones are staffed at peak times. About 90 percent of incoming calls are now being directly answered. Those whose calls are answered mechanically are informed of where they stand in the queue and offered the option of remaining on the line or leaving a message.

The inspector general’s report said that in many instances it could not account for a significant amount of the time of the counselors who were supposed to be manning the call center, which counts 60 employees. Pape suggested they may have either been attending training sessions, on leave or filing paperwork in regard to earlier contacts.

Lawmakers attending the committee meeting chided the department for its failings.

“The OIG report is embarrassing to our nation’s brave men and women,” said Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.). “Almost 50,000 veterans experience homelessness on any given night and yet we can’t even help the ones who reach out for help. This is another example of the persistent lack of accountability at the VA and cannot continue.”

The call center, Walorski said, is “failing our nation’s finest.”

On the positive side, the department declared that the problem of veteran homelessness is declining -- veteran homelessness has dropped 33 percent since 2009, although plenty of cases remain unresolved.

Precise counts are impossible to achieve because of the homeless population’s transient nature. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates 49,933 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, about twice that number may experience homelessness.

Only 7 percent of the nation’s general population are service veterans but they account for almost 13 percent of the homeless.

The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans maintains that in addition to the usual reasons for homelessness – a nationwide shortage of affordable housing, the lack of income and access to healthcare – a large number of displaced and at-risk veterans face additional challenges like the lingering effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse, factors compounded by a lack of family and social support networks.

In addition, military occupations and training are not always transferable to the civilian workforce, placing some veterans at a disadvantage when competing for employment.

A top priority for homeless veterans, according to the coalition, is secure, safe, clean housing that offers a supportive environment free of drugs and alcohol.