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SALT LAKE CITY — While Utah’s number of veterans experiencing homelessness has decreased by 40% over the last nearly 10 years, more can be done to help those who remain or are at risk of becoming homeless, advocates say.
In Utah this year, 211 veterans were without homes, said Jennifer Steele, Homeless Veterans program coordinator with Veterans Affairs Salt Lake City. By comparison, 345 veterans in 2010 were homeless.
The numbers decreased as officials focused on finding permanent housing rather than transitional housing, according to Steele.
Now, veterans need increased access to telemental health services, which can be accessed through mobile devices, and low- and no-barrier housing options, advocates on Monday told members of the Veterans and Military Affairs Commission.
Challenges to helping homeless veterans
Veterans become homeless for a variety of reasons, Steele said, which could include displacement from their primary support group, family, and friends; difficulties readjusting to civilian life; underemployment or unemployment; distrust in systems in general; and trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health and substance use issues.
Among current challenges to the VA in helping those veterans is the ongoing transition from Salt Lake City’s downtown shelter to three new homeless resource centers, Steele said.
“And we have had longstanding partnerships with community agencies ... and there’s just been some interesting things happening that have prevented us from being where we need to be to see veterans,” Steele said.
The VA is working through those issues with the organizations that run the resource centers, she said.
The new shelter model focuses on offering services to help those experiencing homelessness get back on their feet, rather than simply providing temporary beds. The South Salt Lake men’s resource center began moving men in on Monday, said Christina Davis, spokeswoman for the Department of Workforce Services, which is aiding the transition.
In an interview with KSL, Steele explained, “I think there’s just been some coordination and access challenges as these have been implemented, making sure we are able to, we know when a veteran’s in the system, we know when a veteran’s in a resource center.”
Resource center intake includes a new process that has caused delays for the VA in being able to go in and see homeless veterans, she said. “But I do feel like we’re working with everybody to work through those,” Steele added.
Davis said veteran status is gathered at intake and goes into the state homeless database. But VA workers had been unable to get into the resource centers because of recent state licensing requirements that she described as “strict.”
“And so making sure that everybody was in compliance with that. So that has been an issue. We have it worked that out, at least for the time being. There may need to be some changes that are made in the future,” Davis said, adding that it’s an issue that comes along with transitioning to a new model.
Steele emphasized the VA does “support the model.”
“And with any transition, there’s going to be things that come up that maybe you couldn’t plan for, or you didn’t know about. So I think it will get smoother, as well,” she said.
When asked if she believes veterans in the homeless system are being taken care of, she said, “It’s hard to tell.” The VA is seeing fewer homeless veterans in the shelters right now, she said, but “it’s hard to tell what all those factors are” leading to lower numbers.
Before entering the new resource centers, clients are required to pass through metal detectors and submit to a bag search to check for weapons or drugs, and will be briefed on the center’s rules.
That could disqualify those who aren’t ready to commit to giving up alcohol or substances, said Steele, emphasizing the need for low- and no-barrier service programs, which would accept those people.
“I just think there’s a gap in general for low- and no-barrier in this community that may become more pronounced and apparent with shifting to the new model. Like I said, lots of advantages, but I think the question remains about where are individuals going to go ... if they’re still drinking or using and can’t commit to not doing it while they’re being served in a resource center,” she said.
She also said communities in Utah need more qualified clinical social workers, and more prevention services for those at risk of becoming homeless.
Difficulty reaching experienced, qualified mental health professionals in a timely manner prevents many veterans who need help from getting it when they’re ready to open up to someone, said Danny Warner, CEO of Chateau Recovery.
“And what we’ve found, is if we are not able to remove those barriers and make treatment accessible for them when that window opens up, oftentimes that window will close again for us,” Warner told the commission.
Oftentimes, when veterans see a therapist in the community, the therapist isn’t equipped to help them and responds like a “deer in the headlights,” Warner said.
That’s where telemental health services come in, he explained.
Barry Toone, owner and general counsel for Stepstone Connect, a Sandy-based e-counseling company, also said in some communities, especially smaller ones, there’s often a lack of providers with experience treating veterans.
He said his company sends out “extensive credentialing packets” to assess skill sets of therapists around the country — targeting providers who are approved by the Drug Enforcement Administration and VA.
“And then, when there is somebody that needs help, we can find the right person at the right time” to treat them, he said.
Providing a tablet to connect to veteran and telehealth services, especially for those who are homebound, can save money in travel. It can also save time, Toone said, allowing veterans who work to take a quick break rather than potential hours off to travel to a therapist.
Though telemental health services don’t work for everyone, access to something “as creative as telemental health is an extreme benefit,” said Eric Tadehara, program director for the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
And Utah faces a unique challenge from being one of the largest geographical states in the country. In some areas, like Rich County, there are no clinicians closer than three or four hours away, Tadehara said.
No actions were taken during Monday’s meeting.
As the meeting adjourned, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, said “We’ll continue to look at things that may work ... as we rethink our policies” during the upcoming Legislative Session.
Veterans experiencing homelessness in Utah, or their loved ones, can call the VA Homeless Outreach at 1-800-613-4012 ext. 4706 for help.