Voices from the Field Blog: Peer Support for Veterans Involved in the Justice System

by Darby Penney
May 29, 2014

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Homeless and Housing Resource Network contributing writer Darby Penney highlights the work of MISSION DIRECT VET (Maintaining Independence and Sobriety through Systems Integration, Outreach and Networking-Diversion and Recovery for Traumatized Veterans), which is a treatment program that serves veterans with co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issues.

“Shortly after the opening of the pilot site for our Jail Diversion-Trauma Recovery program, we quickly realized that one of the veterans involved in our program was homeless,” said David Goldstein, a team member of MISSION DIRECT VET in Massachusetts. “So the two of us got in the car and drove over to the local veterans’ shelter. We were introduced to the staff, and after the veteran told his story of how PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) contributed to his homelessness and his involvement with the courts, he was welcomed with open arms. The warmth present in the room brought me to tears. This was my first, and certainly not my last, experience with a homeless veteran and a welcoming shelter.”

The MISSION DIRECT VET program began with a single pilot site in Worcester, MA in 2009 that has expanded to two other sites in the state. Its goal is to serve veterans with mental health, substance abuse, and other trauma-related issues who are involved with the criminal justice system in order to divert them from jail into trauma-informed services. Originally funded through a five-year SAMHSA grant, the program continues now with state funding.

MISSION-DIRECT VET is a manualized treatment program for people with co-occurring mental health and substance abuse issues. It is the primary treatment service that is offered, and it is supplemented by 12 months of peer support services and case management. Referrals and linkages to vital community-based services such as veterans’ services, vocational and independent living skills programs, family support, and transitional residence programs are also central to the program.

Veterans are over-represented among people experiencing homelessness (e.g., in 2010, veterans accounted for about 10 percent of the total U.S. adult population and 16 percent of the homeless adult population). The good news is that homelessness among veterans has declined by an estimated 25 percent since 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report. 

The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that homeless veterans include service members from every era since World War II. While Vietnam-era veterans are at greater risk of homelessness than those from other eras, veterans of recent conflicts are more likely to be more gravely disabled. One recent study found two-thirds of homeless Iraq and Afghanistan veterans were diagnosed with PTSD, a rate far higher than earlier generations of veterans (Tsai et al., 2013).

This is where programs that offer a strong peer support component can be especially helpful. MISSION-DIRECT VET team member David Goldstein is a Vietnam veteran, a trauma survivor, and person in recovery. He provides the veterans who participate in the program with one-on-one peer mentoring, facilitates veterans support groups, and connects veterans to resources in the community. Perhaps most importantly, he listens, sits with people who are in trouble, and offers a non-judgmental perspective of someone who has been through many of the same experiences as the people he serves.

While Goldstein has seen the success stories of many of the veterans who have been through the program, he cautions that there are still areas for improvement. “Veterans who go into homeless shelters are often there, directly or indirectly, because of substance abuse issues with drugs and/or alcohol that are often related to PTSD. Because of the rules of the shelters subsidized by the VA (Veterans Administration), they may be asked to leave due to abusing the very substances that got them there to begin with. To keep these veterans from falling back into homelessness, the protocols for these shelters must change,” he said.

References
Henry, M., Cortes, A., & Morris, S. (2013). The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. Washington, DC: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Community Planning and Development.

National Alliance to End Homelessness. (n.d.). Veterans. Washington, DC: National Alliance to End Homelessness. [Website article]. Retrieved from http://www.endhomelessness.org/pages/veterans

National Center for Veterans Analysis and Statistics. (2012). Profile of Sheltered Homeless Veterans for Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010.  Washington, DC: The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.Retrieved from http://www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/SpecialReports/Homeless_Veterans_2009-2010.pdf

Tsai, J., Pietrzak, R. H., & Rosenheck, R. A. (2013). Homeless veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan: Gender differences, combat exposure, and comparisons with previous cohorts of homeless veterans. Administration and Policy in Mental Health and Mental Health Services Research, 40(5), 400-405.

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Category: General | Guest Entry