Stand-down for Homeless Veterans

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by Roger Johnson

 

LEEDS, Mass., Sept. 26 — New England’s cold winters can be tough on everyone, but every winter is toughest on those among us who don’t have a roof over their heads.

As temperatures fall, for many in western Massachusetts, the hardship of homelessness is compounded by the truth that they had once put their lives on the line to serve our country in wars past and present.  They deserve the very best support network possible.

According to a national study released earlier this year, about 16 percent of all homeless adults are Veterans, even though veterans make up only 10 percent of the adult population.

To help reach as many of our homeless Veterans as possible, VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System will once again help sponsor this year’s annual Western Massachusetts Stand-Down to bring much-needed services to homeless Veterans and Veterans in need.

The event represents the close partnership with many organizations including the Western Massachusetts Bi-Lingual Veteran’s Outreach Center on Franklin Street, the Mason Square Veterans Center on Eastern Avenue, the City of Springfield, the Massachusetts Department of Veterans Services and the area’s municipal veteran services officers.

The 2011 Stand-Down will take place Friday, Sept. 30, from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Greek Cultural Center, 22 St. George Road, Springfield.

The Stand-Down brings healthcare providers, counseling services, legal aid, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, Social Security Administration and many other services together to assist homeless, needy and all other Veterans, active duty military members, and their families.

“Stand Down” originated from a term used in times of war when combat units requiring time to rest and recover were removed from the battlefield to a place of relative security and safety. Today, Stand Down refers to a grassroots, community-based intervention program designed to help the region’s homeless Veterans receive assistance from volunteers and organizations throughout the region.

This year, VA representatives from the VA Community-Based Outpatient Clinic on Bond Street in Springfield will be on hand to provide information and assistance on VA healthcare.  Other VA staff members in attendance will include VA disability claims service, VA eligibility and diabetes education.

Our VA experience is that homelessness is, in large part, a healthcare issue.  Nationally, more than 81 percent of the cost to assist homeless Veterans goes for healthcare needs. In fact, homeless Veteran healthcare costs are 3.5 times the cost for veterans who are not homeless. The remaining 19 percent—$800 million in 2011—goes to specific rescue and prevention programs designed to reduce Veterans’ homelessness.

We’re also reaching Veterans through our new homeless Veteran hotline—1-877-4AID-VET. Since March 2010, VA nationally has received over 32,000 calls, over 8,000 of which came from homeless Veterans, with another 15,000 identifying themselves as “at risk of homelessness.” A small number of calls came from concerned family members or friends of a veteran in need. More than 16,000 calls were immediately linked to a local medical center such as the ones we have in Northampton, Springfield, Greenfield and Pittsfield for treatment or medical attention.

Here in western Massachusetts, Veterans can also call our Patient Call Center at 1-800-893-1522.  Our call center representatives are trained to assist all Veterans for risk factors and to help them with available VA and community services.

In the past year, VA has seen and served hundreds of homeless Veterans throughout western Massachusetts, but we know that there are many more homeless Veterans in both the urban areas of our communities as well as in rural pockets in all four counties.  Many, I fear, do not know about our programs and services.

We’d ask for your help in identifying and referring Veterans in need.  Each community member can make a difference in reaching out to our Veterans.  Every referral also allows us to partner with community-based providers, so we can together deliver services to homeless veterans who are currently living on the streets or in shelters.

In addition to the direct benefits to Veterans who attend the Stand-Down on the 30th, I also see a dual purpose in the collaboration that takes place with the event each year.  It’s a collaboration that must take place with the entire system of support – local, state and federal – to willingly respond when a homeless Veteran seeks help or shelter.

When we ask our men and women to fight and sacrifice for us in defense of our nation, we make a promise that we will give them the support they need when they come home. The Stand-Down offers one way to fulfill that promise for our most vulnerable Veterans — those who are homeless.

Roger Johnson is the director of the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System, with locations in Northampton, Pittsfield, Springfield, and Greenfield.  In October, the system will expand to include facilities in Worcester and Fitchburg.

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