Homeless Veterans and Health Care: A Resource Guide for Providers
This resource provides insight into the problems faced by homeless veterans and tries to answer the question of why veterans end up homeless in the first place.
Providers of health care services to people experiencing homelessness are well-aware of this apparent contradiction. Why are veterans who should have special benefits and services available to them from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) ending up on the streets of the country they served? Two core questions are raised by this incongruity: “Why did they become homeless?” and “Why aren’t VA services and benefits helping them get off the streets?”
Why are veterans homeless? Research has helped to illuminate the causes of veteran homelessness, pointing away from military service as a risk factor and towards the “usual suspects” of personal vulnerabilities related to physical and mental health, addictions, and social isolation, occurring within the structural context of lack of affordable housing and extreme poverty.
With regard to the second question of why available services and benefits don’t always create a path out of homelessness, there are several possible scenarios. Clearly, veterans with “other than honorable discharges” – also known as “bad paper” – would not have access to benefits and services from the VA. But what about those who are eligible who don’t take advantage of what’s available? Are they simply unaware of the resources? Are they aware, but too confused and frustrated by the process involved to apply? Are they actively avoiding contact with the large government institution of the VA? Or are the services not appropriate or adequate to meet their needs?
The answer, of course, is “all of the above.” Each individual veteran is different. Health care providers – whether involved in medical care, mental health/substance abuse services, social work, case management or outreach activities – need to understand those individual differences. Just as important is having a clear picture of the complex range of services and benefits offered by the VA and community-based organizations, including eligibility requirements and how to facilitate access.
This document is designed to begin addressing these issues. Although it may also be of use to others in the field, it is primarily directed towards health care providers who serve homeless veterans as part of their general client population. It is not intended as a guide to best practices for setting up specific programs for homeless veterans, in that it does not include a comprehensive comparison of the various approaches to veterans’ programs. Rather, this is presented as an introduction to what we have learned from research and practice about the needs of homeless veterans, plus current resources available to meet those needs, and some ideas for future collaboration. (Author)
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